The Vedas and other Scriptural Texts of Ancient India
Swami never commences any function or Divine Discourse without a chant from the Vedas by His students. At one time, He even declared that He had come to protect theVedas. What are these Vedas? When did they come into existence? Who wrote them? How many Vedas are there? What is their special significance if any? This article attempts an answer to these questions.
The Vedas are the most ancient amongst the world's scriptures. They are a vast storehouse of Wisdom. Manu has declared that everything is derived from theVedas. The Vedas are immeasurable, unrivaled and filled with Bliss. The word Veda is derived from the verb 'Vid' which means 'to know'. Knowledge of the Supreme is Veda.
The Vedas are called Apourusheya i.e., not of human origin and Anaadi i.e., without a beginning in terms of time. One might wonder: "How could that be? After all, even the Universe has had a beginning, and the Rishis who gave us the Vedas came after Creation. So how could it be claimed that the Vedas have no beginning?" Interestingly, the answer to all this is provided by the Vedas themselves in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. It is declared therein that the Vedas are the Supreme Lord Ishwara's breath. In other words, the Vedas have always been in coexistence with Him as His very breath. Since Ishwara is Eternal, so are the Vedas. And when the Lord created Brahma (Brahma's purpose is to attend to the practical details of Creation) as a prelude to full-fledged creation, He transmitted via His breath the full knowledge of the Vedas to His son Brahma. Thus Brahma was the first Being to have the Divine revelation of the Vedas. Guided by the vibrations he received from Ishwara's Heart, Brahma then created the Universe.
The vibrations that Brahma received are Cosmic Vibrations. At the physical level, a common form of vibration is sound. The Vedic verses one usually hears chanted are transcriptions of Cosmic Vibrations into sound vibrations; and in this manner, we are able to hear and cognize Divine Vibrations. The transcription into sound just referred to was accomplished through the ages by a host of unknown Rishis who, while in deep meditation, established direct rapport with Cosmic Vibrations during which process the latter became audible to them as sound. The Rishis committed these to memory and later passed them on to their disciples, which is how Vedic Mantras (hymns) were handed down from generation to generation, long before there was even a written script. Equally remarkable is the fact that the Rishis who received the revelations did not claim any authorship nor leave any trace of their identity. If ever there was any unselfish sharing of Divine gifts, this was it.
Divine revelations are not all that unusual and have occurred throughout history to various people in different places. Indeed even in science, the sudden flash of a discovery is a revelation of a kind; and all great scientists have had such experiences - from Archimedes to Einstein. Likewise there are many examples of revelations to religious prophets. What is unique about the Vedas is that the hymns that constitute them not only have a powerful tonal quality but their structure has defied corruption and mutation through the ages. Whereas languages evolve with time, including sometimes over short periods, the Vedic language has remained unchanged over several thousands of years (during which the revelations occurred) which suggests that in this case, even the very words came from Brahman Himself. As Swami says:
The Vedas took form, only to demonstrate and emphasize the existence of God. The Veda is the collation of words that are the Truth, which were visualised by sages who had attained the capacity to receive them into their enlightened awareness. In reality, the Word is the very Breath of God, the Supreme Person. The unique importance of the Veda rests on this fact.
Thanks to losses of some texts over the ages, the Vedic Mantras available today are only a fraction of what was once revealed to the meditating Rishis. Be that as it may, even what the Rishis could grasp was but a tiny drop in the limitless ocean that are the Vedas. A story is sometimes told to illustrate the limitless nature of the Vedas.
The great Sage Bharadwaja - to whose lineage Swami belongs - was specially granted three lives to study and absorb the Vedas. Appreciative of his effort, Lord Siva appeared before the sage and said: "If I give you another span of life, what would you do with it?" The Rishi replied that as in earlier births, he would spend his life in the study of theVedas. Siva was pleased but wanted to impress on the sage that the Vedas were limitless. So with a wave of His hand, He created several mighty mountains after which He picked up a handful of mud. Stretching His hand towards Bharadwaja, Siva said: "What you have so far studied is equal to this handful of earth. What you have yet to study is a million times more than these mountains!"
The Vedic Mantras are the fountain head of ancient Indian scriptures. Scholars usually classify the scriptures as follows:
The different divisions that are illustrated above are called Vidyas, and there are fourteen of them - four Vedas, six Vedangas and four Upangas. Sage Vyasa codified theVedas into four groups and thus came into existence what we now refer to as the Rig, the Saama, the Yajur and the Atharva (also called the Atharvana) Vedas.
The Vedas are also referred to as Sruti which means 'that which is heard'. The real reason for calling them Sruti is that Cosmic Vibrations which are normally inaudible were heard by the meditating Rishis of yore as actual sounds. The sound aspect of the Vedas is considered very important and great stress is laid on the correct pronunciation of the words as well as the intonation during chanting. Elaborate recitation drills were conceived by the ancients, thanks to which the chanting that is done today is precisely the same as it was thousands of years ago. Succeeding generations have worked hard to ensure this purity without recording media, paper or even a written language. It is doubtful if there are any other instances of the spoken word which have defied mutation and corruption over such an extended period of time.
Regarding the spiritual significance of the proper chanting, the late Paramacharya Sri Chandrasekara has this to say:
Vedas must be chanted with grandeur so that the sound can be properly heard. Vedic Mantras not only produce beneficial vibrations in the pulse of the one who chants them properly, but also similar vibrations in those who may hear them. Since it is spread in the atmosphere, it ensures well-being here and hereafter.... The outstanding feature of the Vedas lies in the fact that the sound of the Mantras by itself when chanted has a meaning, apart from the words themselves, which too are pregnant with significance.
In each Veda, it is customary to recognise three portions called the Samhitas, the Braahmanas and the Aaranyakas. Samhita means that which has been collected and arranged. The Samhitas project the purport of a Veda in the shape of Mantras suitably organised and structured. What one normally hears during Vedic chants is from theSamhita portion.
The Samhitas of all the four Vedas together contain about twenty thousand Mantras of which a little over ten thousand belong to the Rig Veda Samhita. The Mantra belonging to the Rig Veda is called Rik/Rk (a later word for which is Sloka); a collection of Riks constitutes a Sookta. However, Sooktas are not peculiar to the Rig Veda alone and a few of them are found in the other Vedas as well. Some Sooktas like the Purusha Sooktam, Narayana Sooktam, Rudram and Chamakam are particularly famous and are often to be heard at Prashanti Nilayam. About the Rig Veda, Swami says:
The very first experience in the history of Indian thought is the thrill of wonder. This is expressed in the Rik or hymns found in the Rig Veda.... The Riks are all about the gods or the Shining Ones (the Devas). Of these Devas, there are many: Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Parjanya - these are the names of a few.
The Mantras of the Rig Veda are largely devoted to singing the praise of the Devas (e.g., Agni). The Yajur Veda on the other hand, is more concerned with spelling out ritualistic procedures. In fact, the words Yajur and Yajna are both derived from the root Yaj which means worship. Thus the accent in the Yajur Veda is on worship through austerities, rites and rituals. Saama means to bring Shanti or peace to the mind, and the Saama Veda achieves this by setting Mantras to music with lengthened tones. Although most of the Mantras themselves are derived from the Rig Veda, it is the distinctively lengthened musical intonation that sets the Saama Veda apart. The uniqueness of the Saama Veda is proclaimed by Lord Krishna Himself when He declares that among the Vedas, He is Saama. Is it any wonder then that Ravana was able to influence Lord Siva with his singing of the Saama Veda?
The Atharva Veda is named after a Rishi of the same name, who first brought these Mantras to light. The hymns are intended to ward off evil and hardships, as also to destroy enemies (not necessarily humans). Swami comments on this Veda as follows:
Many have described it in diverse ways. Some have denied it the status of a Veda. In the other Vedas, the might and the mystery of the gods are described. But in this Veda, the possibility of man acquiring certain powers and mysteries by his own effort and exercises are mentioned. This is its specialty.
Superficially, the four Vedas seem different but a closer scrutiny would reveal that they all have the common goal of ensuring well-being. This in fact was the reason why the kings of yore greatly encouraged the constant chanting of the Vedas. In the Ramayana it states that when Hanuman went around Lanka searching for Sita, he heard the chanting of the Vedas in some places. Another important point is that none of the Vedas claim that there is only one way to God. Rather they stress that any good path followed with faith, sincerity and devotion will lead one to the ultimate goal. As Swami puts it,
The Vedas are concerned with and expound the Supreme Person, the Ishwara, Who created this Universe, Who fosters it, in Whom it merges in accordance with the process of time, and from Whom again it manifests as His Form - this amazing Universe.
The Samhita portion of the Vedas is understandably better known considering it contains the most popular chants. In a sense, the Samhitas form the core of the Vedas. TheBraahmanas are texts which serve as working manuals, spelling out how the rites and rituals ought to be performed.
Turning next to the Aaranyakas, the word is derived from Aaranya which means forest; these texts are therefore sometimes referred to as 'forest books', and there is a reason why they are called this. Neither the Samhitas nor the Braahmanas enjoin that a person in pursuit of spiritual development must retire to the forest; rather, the accent is on serving Society through the chanting of the Vedas and the performance of the various ordained rituals. However, while constant chanting and performing rituals no doubt promotes mental purity (Chitta Suddhi), something quite different is required for further spiritual progress. That is to seek the solitude of the forest for meditation and contemplation; the Aaranyaka texts prove suitable to this phase of spiritual development. The famous Upanishads come at the end of the Aaranyakas, and represent the quintessence of Vedic knowledge. Commenting on the different roles of Braahmanas and the Aaranyakas (which essentially mean the Upanishads), Swami remarks:
The Braahmanas constitute an important part of the Vedas, and deal with the correct procedures for performing Yajnas and Yagas. Being ceremonial rites for acquiring mundane pleasures, such ceremonies, however, cannot offer Atmananda or the pure Bliss of the Atma. They can only enhance sensory enjoyment and provide epicurean pleasures which are intrinsically transient. The search for the pure abiding Bliss of the Atma led the ancient Rishis to the solitude of the forests.... these sages have communicated the spiritual wisdom revealed to them through the Upanishads.
Given the above wide spectrum of the scriptural texts, one sometimes divides them into two broad categories: the Karma Kanda and the Jnana Kanda; the former being largely devoted to rituals and the latter to philosophical knowledge. Coming as they do at the end of the Vedas, the Upanishads are also referred to as Vedanta meaning that which is at the end of the Vedas. In this sense, Vedanta represents the end of the quest that a person starts on when he gets initiated into the Vedas. Understandably, Vedantabelongs to Jnana Kanda.
Returning to the Samhitas, it turns out that many types of recitation exist, each belonging to a particular school. These schools are called Saakhas or branches. Thus theVedas stand in majesty like a vast banyan tree with numerous branches.
We now come to the Vedaangas. The word Anga means limb or organ. Thus, Vedaangas are texts which are like the limbs of the Vedas. The most important of these is Sikshawhich deals with Vedic phonetics. Since syllable and tonal purity are considered the very breath of the Vedas, Siksha is regarded as the nose of the Vedas. Next is Vyaakaranaor grammar, which is considered the mouth of the Vedas. This is followed by Chandas or metre, constituting the feet of the Vedas; Nirukta or etymology (the ear of theVedas); Jyothisha or astronomy cum astrology (the eye); and finally, Kalpa or procedure (the arm).
Vyaakarana, Chandas and Nirukta one can understand but how does Jyotisha apply? It turns out that the ancients of India believed that there was a right time and place for every spiritual activity, and Jyotisha came into existence to guide people on how to select the right time; and it was on account of this guiding role that Jyotisha came to be regarded as the eyes of the Vedas.
The five Angas which precede the Kalpa enable the student of the Veda to become proficient in faultless pronunciation (through Siksha), to understand the grammar (viaVyaakarana) and the metre (through Chandas), and to comprehend the meanings of rare and uncommon words (through Nirukta). Having progressed thus far, the Kalpas then instruct the Vedic aspirant on the do's and don'ts connected with the numerous rituals.
Related to the ten Vidyas discussed so far are the Upaangas which literally means 'subsidiary limbs'; in the present context, they mean 'auxiliary texts'. There are four of them and they are: Meemamsa, Nyaaya, Puraanas and the Dharma Saastras. While the literal meanings of the Vedic Mantras may be found in the Niruktas, their purport and significance are detailed in the Meemamsa. Meemamsa itself is regarded as made of two portions - the Poorva Meemamsa and the Uttara Meemamsa. While the former emphasises rituals (i.e., concentrates on the Karma Kanda portion of the Vedas), the latter focuses on the importance of Self-realisation (i.e., on Jnana). After Meemamsacomes Nyaaya which deals with the logical inference of the existence of Brahman. Unlike these high-flown disciplines, the Puraanas cater to general tastes, dealing as they do with mythological stories intended to illustrate the substance of the Vedas. As the Paramacharya says:
The Puraanas can be called the 'magnifying glass' of the Vedas as they magnify small images into big images. The Vedic injunctions which are contained in the form of pithy statements are magnified or elaborated in the form of stories or anecdotes in the Puraanas.
The Puraanas of Bharat have played an extraordinary role in sustaining spirituality amongst the common folk throughout the ages. Indeed, it was the Puraanic story of King Harishchandra which, within living memory, made such a profound impact on Gandhi that he swore eternal commitment to Sathya, which in turn made him into a legend of his own.
Of the fourteen disciplines, the Dharma Shastra comes last. Commenting on it, the Paramacharya says
The Puraanas have Bhakti as their theme. But can we spend all the twenty-four hours doing Puja, and singing the praise of the Lord? We have to do our duty to the family. We have to eat, bathe etc., and attend to personal and bodily needs. Even to devote the balance of the time to Puja is not possible. Boredom sets in. We require therefore directions and guidance to perform our deeds. Where from do we learn these? From the Dharma Saastra. The Dharma Saastra tells us what we should do in our daily life, and how secular life and religious life are not separate. Secularism is also designed to lead to religion as per Vedic Dharma. Whatever job is done should be Dharma-orientated and be a part of the process of evolution of the self.
Dharma Shastra lays down the code of conduct for man covering all aspects of his life, the codification having been contributed to by several Rishis (of whom Manu is the most famous). The Dharma Saastra is also called Smriti. A Smriti is an aide-memoire for the Vedas. All the do's and don'ts are spelt out in pitiless detail and Manu advises that when in doubt, one should consult the Smritis. From the time a Jiva enters a mother's womb, through birth, growth, marriage, running the household etc., the Smriti lays down all that has to be done in minute detail. It is interesting that even today the Smriti is accepted as an authority in the law courts of India when doubts on Hindu law arise. Equally noteworthy is the fact that while the Dharma Shastra lays down a whole spectrum of guidelines, it persuades rather than compels. Referring to all these texts, Swami comments:
The Vedas teach man his duties from birth to death. They describe his rights and duties, obligations and responsibilities, in all stages of life - as a student, householder, recluse and monk. In order to make plain the Vedic dicta and axioms and enable all to understand the meaning and purpose of the do's and the don'ts, the Vedaangas, the Puraanas, and the Epic texts appeared in course of time. Therefore, if man is eager to grasp his own significance and true Reality, he has to understand the importance of these later explanatory compositions also. This is the reason why the ancients taught the Vedaangas and other related texts, even before the pupils learnt the Vedas.
The scriptural texts of India - the Vedas, Vedaangas, Upanishads, Smritis, Puraanas and Ithihasas - are repositories of profound wisdom. Each of them is an ocean of sweet sustaining milk.
Finally, mention must be made of the Brahma Sutra. A Sutra is an aphorism which projects a thought with minimal use of words. The Brahma Sutra is a text containing the essence of all Upanishadic teachings in the form of a string of Sutras. We owe these also to Sage Vyasa. Swami's Sutra Vahini offers a commentary on the Brahma Sutra.
The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra form a trinity of scriptural texts known as Prasthaana Trayi (the Three Source Texts). They are entirely consistent with each other, and in matters philosophical, they are regarded as the ultimate authority.
We hope that this article has given you a fair idea about the Vedas and other scriptural texts. For further enlightenment concerning the Vedas, see the Leela Kaivalya Vahiniand Summer Showers in Brindavan, 1974, by Bhagavan Baba.