Scriptures and Texts - Part 'B' Vedas
Continued from Part XVIII
Vedas are the oldest scriptures and treasure troves of the spiritual knowledge encompassing virtually all aspects of human life. It has stood the test of time and age of Hindu Sanatana culture and religion; not only the religious authorities but even scholars and reformers have taken recourse to and relied upon the knowledge and wisdom contained in Vedas to stress their point in different span. In fact, all the Hindu religious and social rituals and ceremonies including birth, marriage and death are largely based on Vedic doctrines for the time immemorial. As for their vintage, it is very difficult to come to a precise time. While different indigenous sources claim them to be from four to twelve thousand years old; even the German scholar Max Mueller accepted that they might be of 3000 BCE vintage. However, the Western scholars and historians based on certain analogies and collateral evidence suggest that the oldest literature i.e. Rig Veda may be about fifteen hundred years before Christ.
Veda is essentially a Sanskrit word from the root “vid”, which means ‘to know’; thus it conveys a meaning of "knowledge" or "wisdom". Being the most ancient text in Sanskrit, there is no single known author of Vedas; instead, it is widely believed and accepted that they were revealed through divine inspiration to ancient rishis who passed it orally for generations until they were finally coded on the ‘palm leaves’ most likely around 500 BCE. For these very reasons, they are called Shruti i.e. what is heard. However, the mythological position is that Lord Brahma was the creator of the Vedas, by orally conveying it to the rishis.
The Vedas are not only the oldest holy texts but also considered the most authoritative and infallible of all the texts. They are essentially a collection of teachings in the form of hymns, ritualistic songs and poems, and some prose text. Their vintage and origin point may be debatable due to obvious reasons and gaps but, undoubtedly, they contain knowledge and wisdom originated far more ancient and tenable through ages. Terms like Brahman or Ishwar (God) and Yoga were first used in Vedas and later analysed, interpreted and explained in Upanishads and other holy texts. The four Vedas are briefly defined as under:
Rig Veda - The most ancient, important and basic Veda. It contains hymns and mantras dedicated to natural gods like Indra, Agni, Varuna etc for the universal wisdom, happiness and health, including the most famous and pious Gayatri mantra.
Sama Veda – Largely a collection of musical hymns and mantras mostly derived from Rig Veda that forms the basis for bhajan-kirtan i.e. the devotional chanting among Hindus (Bhakti yoga).
Yajur Veda – Largely a collection of hymns and mantras as the instructional handbook for the ceremonies, sacrificial acts and worship of the deities mostly used by the Vedic priests.
Atharva Veda – A large collection of hymns on magical rites and spells to dispel demons and disease, as well as hymns for social issues like marriage and cremation.
Vedas are divided in four popular sections:
The Samhitas – comprising of hymns and mantras for chanting.
The Brahmanas – Detailed commentaries on hymns of rituals and ceremonies.
The Arankayas – They are also called forest books containing details of rituals and ceremonies for liturgy.
The Upanishads - Discussion on meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge.
The Rig Veda is the oldest compilation of Sanskrit hymns and mantras, and the chief source of Knowledge about the ancient Vedic civilization describing the origin and theology of the Hindu culture and religion. It encompasses information on the whole range of religious, social and economic conditions of the time. Even though Brahman or Ishwar, the ultimate reality finds a mention in several hymns of Rig Veda suggesting belief in monotheism (existence of one God), a large number of hymns glorify deities like Agni (Fire god), Indra (Rain god), Rudra (Storm god), Vayu (Air god) and so on, giving speculation and leverage to other religions and people of interpreting Hinduism as the naturalistic polytheism (many gods) and even monism (different paths to the same God). Thus a total of thirty-three different deities find a reference in various hymns of Rig Veda.
The core text of the Rig Veda Samhita is a compilation of 1,028 Vedic hymns (Suktas) and about 10,600 verses in all, organized into ten mandalas (books) of different size and length. There is no single author, instead the different mandalas are believed to have been compiled by different rishis in the ancient time. The ten mandalas are accorded to ancient rishis namely Angira, Kanva, Vasishtha, Vishvamitra, Atri, Bhrgu, Kashyapa, Grtsamada, Agastya and Bharata. As already mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the scripture originated as Shruti (oral literature), hence the use of the term "books" appears to be a misnomer. The individual mandalas look like standalone collections of hymns which were probably intended to be memorized by the members the respective religious priestly group of the ancient time to be used for various rituals.
Originally written in Sanskrit, the Rig Veda has been transliterated and translated in several languages making it accessible worldwide today. While the hymns in mandalas glorify deities such as Agni, Indra, Varun, Surya, Vayu, Poosha, Usha, Ashwin, Rudra, Bhag, Marut, Vishnu, Vishwedeva, Prithvi etc addressing various philosophical and metaphysical aspects, they also highlight different virtues such as dana (Charity) and yajna (sacrifice or offering) for self-purification and upliftment. For illustration, while a category of Tattvadnyan Suktas amplify ancient Hindu philosophy, Laukik Suktas guide day to day life of people, Samskar Suktas describe various social rituals and Mantriki Suktas address negativities such as illness and nightmares.
As illustrated in the foregoing paragraphs, the Rigveda is broadly comprised of the four core components namely Samhita, Brahmanas, Aranyakas (forest books) and Upanishads. The Samhita is the oldest part comprised of hymns glorifying the (natural) deities, their role and impact. The Brahmanas are the detailed commentaries on the hymns. The Aranyakas and Upanishads served as appendices to the Samhitas and Brahmanas. Aranyakas giving insight into early interpretations and doctrines meant for sages during the study in secluded places along with their pupils/students that later evolved into more intellectual discussions, detailed and authentic analysis in the form of Upanishads. Two primary Upanishads namely Aitareya and Kaushitaki are embeded in Rig Veda.
The Rigvedic hymns are dedicated to the natural deities like Indra (the prominent rain god), Agni (the sacrificial fire), Varuna (sky god, later god of water), Surya (Sun god), Vayu (god of Air), Vishnu, Rudra and a lot more symbolising other natural phenomenon. The hymns refer to deities, persons, phenomena and events, notably the struggle between the early Vedic people and their enemies, the Dasa or Dasyu and their mythical prototypes etc. The Mandala-1 comprises of 191 hymns, the first hymn addressed to Agni, his name being the first word of the Rig Veda. The remaining hymns are mainly addressed to Agni and Indra, the Ashvins, the Maruts, Surya, Rudra, Visnu, and other deities.
The Mandala-2 comprises of 43 hymns; Mandala-3 comprises of 62 hymns, of this verse 3.62.10 being of great significance in Hinduism as the Gayatri Mantra; Mandala-4 comprises of 58 hymns; Mandala-5 comprises of 87 hymns; Mandala-6 of comprises 75 hymns; Mandala-7 comprises of 104 hymns, a few hymns dedicated to Sarasvati (ancient river/goddess of learning) and Vishnu; Mandala-8 comprises 103 hymns; Mandala-9 comprises 114 hymns; and Mandala-10 comprises 191 hymns, glorifying rivers, Purusha, creation and social rituals like birth, marriage and death.
The Rig Veda is often said to be the Veda of mantra which is the foundation of the Vedic yoga - the oldest form of yoga. With the oldest iterations of several Sanskrit mantras, the Hindu practices like yoga, meditation, mantra, Ayurveda and many spiritual disciplines are believed to have their origin in the Rig Veda. Besides, many of disciplines were adapted and amplified in the following three Vedas. Historically, the Rig Veda, along with other Vedas, has maximum impact on shaping and consolidating the Indian (Hindu) culture and civilization including the social and religious life of people through common worship, rituals and sacrifices.
Sama Veda is the second ancient scripture among the hierarchy of four Vedas in Hinduism. It is also known as the ‘Veda of Chants’ or ‘Yoga of Songs’ or even the ‘Book of Song’ because it is largely the collection of melodious chants, most of which is derived from the hymns of the Rig Veda. The early parts of Sama Veda are believed to be contemporary with the Rig Veda but largely the compilation is estimated by the Western scholars to be of 1200 – 1000 vintage, concurrent with the remaining two Vedas namely Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. According to Vedic scholar, David Frawley, “If Rig Veda is word, Sama Veda is song; if Rig Veda is Knowledge, Sama Veda is the realization”.
Sama Veda comprises of about 1875 verses, the majority of which are derived from the Rig Veda, modified and adapted for the singing/chanting, the main purpose appears to be sacramental for the priests participating in Yajna (sacrifice). Two major recensions of Sama Veda, the Ranayaniya and the Jaiminiya, are available. The Samaveda consists of two major parts. The first part includes four gana (melody books) collections and the second part three archika (verse books). A melody in the gana books corresponds to a verse in the archika books. The Gana collection is subdivided into ‘Gramageya’ for public recitations and ‘Aranyageya’ for the personal meditative use. Similarly, the Archika is subdivided into Purvarchika comprises of single stanza verses in order of natural deities and Uttararchika is ordered by rituals.
On the pattern of Rig Veda, early parts of Sama Veda too are dedicated to Agni and Indra but the latter parts focus on abstract philosophy and speculations. Two primary Upanishads namely Chandogya and Kena are embedded inside the Sama Veda. The classical Indian dance and vocal traditions are believed to have their roots in the chants and melodies of Sama Veda. The embedded philosophical concepts in the Chandogya Upanishad served as the foundation of the Vedanta in Hinduism. For illustration, Adi Shankara is stated to have referred to Chandogya Upanishad more than eight hundred times in his Vedanta Sutra Bhasya alone.
This is yet another ancient Hindu scripture mainly devoted to the glory of the deities with the details of rituals and sacred ceremonies. The name Yajur Veda is derived from the Sanskrit words yajus meaning ‘worship or sacrifice’, and Veda meaning knowledge. Some scholars also derive a meaning ‘prose mantra’ from yajus and call it as the Veda of prose mantras. The earliest and most ancient verses of Yajur Veda too are inspired by the verses of Rig Veda. This Veda is divided into two parts namely Shukla (white) Yajur Veda and Krsna (black) Yajur Veda. Two major recensions of the white Yajur Veda namely Madhyandina and Kanva have 1975 and 2086 verses, respectively devoted on prayers and specific instructions for devotional offerings. The black Yajur Veda has four surviving recensions namely Taittiriya, Maitrayani, Ka?haka and Kapi??hala with about 3093 mantras as instructions and mechanics of the sacrificial rituals.
Parts of the Yajur Veda text is also dedicated to offerings and rituals symbolizing aspects of Brahman (God) and principles of pranayama and asana practices. Yoga practices mentioned in the Yajur Veda are referred as the Vedic Yoga in common parlance. Vintage wise, Yajur Veda appears to be contemporary with the Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The sacrificial offerings relate to a variety of things like holy Agni (fire), three main seasons, long life, unimpaired sensory faculties, good health, strength, safety and security, prosperity, tranquillity and contentment. Mantras also relate to rituals like cremation of the dead, and peace of the fore-fathers and ancestors. Yajur Veda text also gives an ample measure of the agriculture (including list of crops), economic and social life of the Vedic era.
The Yajur Veda Samhita comprised of the prose mantras and verses adapted from the Rigveda, served the practical purpose in so far as each mantra would accompany an action in sacrifice. In white Yajur Veda, the Samhita and Brahmana parts are segregated while in the black Yajur Veda the Samhita with Brahmana commentary are interspersed. The Yajur Veda has six primary Upanishads embedded within it namely, Brihadaranyaka, Isha, Taittiriya, Katha, Shvetashvatara and Maitrayaniya Upanishad. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is a key scripture of Hinduism that has greatly influenced all schools of Hindu philosophy in the context of its treatise on Atman (Soul, Self) and Brahman.
Atharva Veda is fourth in the hierarchy of the Vedic scriptures. Unlike the other three, the Atharva Veda is not associated with the sacred rituals; instead, it addresses issues related to the day to day life of the Vedic people. Atharva Veda is derived from the Sanskrit word Atharvanas meaning ‘storehouse’ and Veda meaning ‘knowledge’ i.e. knowledge storehouse of the procedures for everyday life. It is a compendium of twenty Kandas (books) containing hymns, chants, spells and prayers addressing issues of life including all sorts of healing and sorcery.
This Veda is a collection of about 730 hymns with approximately 6,000 mantras, on daily rituals for initiation into learning (upanayana), marriage and funerals, healing of illnesses, health and prosperity, prolonging life, rituals for removing maladies and anxieties, royal rituals and the duties of the court priests etc. Of the twenty Kandas (books), the common belief is that the Atharva Veda Samhita originally had only eighteen Kandas and two were added much later. Unlike other Vedas, these Kandas are arranged neither by subjects nor by authors, but by the length of the hymns with each book containing by and large similar number of hymns and some portion in prose. The majority hymns are original and unique but a few have been derived from the 10th Mandala of Rig Veda.
The hymns of the first seven books mainly focus on the healing and sorcery, the next five (8th to 12th) are on philosophy and speculations on a variety of subjects, and the remaining books are about life cycle rites/rituals and other miscellaneous subjects. These verses cover subjects like medical and health value of certain herbs and plants, marital issues like gaining husband or wife and love interest, metaphysical issues like nature of existence, human beings, good and evil, harmony and peace, heaven and hell, and some even about Brahman (God). The Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine and health care based on Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita derives it’s root and allegiance to Atharva Veda. In a departure from the first three Vedas, the Atharva Veda is more connected with the material world and human beings. It has three embedded primary Upanishads namely, Mundaka, Mandukya and Prashna.
Sanskrit as Language of Scriptures
The language of the Hindu scriptures as also the priestly class has traditionally been Sanskrit in India. Out of the sheer curiosity as to how people feel about this language in modern times, the author made a search and the result was astounding. People differently perceive Sanskrit as divine, perfect, dead, official, computer, scientific, poetic, artificial, Dravidian as also the mother of all languages. It is not surprising that in the complex multi-racial, multi-religion Indian society, the detractors treat it as ‘dead’ language; however, a small hilly state of Uttarakhand has Sanskrit as the second ‘official’ language too. With the common Devanagari script, several Indian languages including Hindi and Nepali treat Sanskrit as the ‘mother of all languages’.
The terms poetic and scientific are mutually contradictory, yet the beauty of Sanskrit is that many people simultaneously treat it both poetic and scientific too. The term Devanagari means ‘dwelling place of gods’. In Vedic era, it was the language used by rishis, priestly and enlightened class, hence it is still recognised as the divine language which is also the most poetic and musical. The language have approximately 800 root words from which thousands of words have originated in Sanskrit carrying multiple meanings – a chief reason also for misapprehension and misinterpretation by many. In the modern times, a lot of research work on Hindu scriptures has been done by the Western scholars and Indian reformer saints like Dayanand Saraswati. Even today for a large number of Sanskrit words, there are no corresponding words in the European languages including English carrying exactly the same meaning, thereby giving ample reasons for misinterpretation and misapprehension. For illustration, the Vedic people glorified many natural deities such as Indra, Agni etc., a total of thirty-three such deities, which are frequently misunderstood and quoted as 330 million gods because the Sanskrit ‘koti’ has two clear meanings as “category/type” and “ten million (crore)”.
These 33 deities include; eight Vasus (deities of material elements) i.e. Dyau? (Sky), P?ithvi (Earth), Vayu (Wind), Agni (Fire), Nak?atra (Stars), Antariksha (Space), Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon); twelve Adityas (personified deities) i.e. Vishnu, Aryaman, Indra, Tva???, Varu?a, Bhaga, Savit?, Vivasvat, Amsa, Mitra, Pusan, Dak?a; eleven Rudras i.e. five abstractions namely Ananda (Bliss), Vijnana (Knowledge), Manas (Thought), Prana (Breath) and Vac (Speech), five Shivas namely Isana (revealing grace), Tatpurusa (concealing grace), Aghora (dissolution/rejuvenation), Vamadeva (preserving aspect) and Sadyojata (born at once), and Atman (Self).The remaining two are the twin solar deities namely two Ashvins.
Vedas: Polytheistic, Monotheistic or Monistic**
By the end of the eighteenth century, the centuries of dominance and misrule of alien powers had led to severe intellectual and spiritual decadence of the Hindu society damaging its economic, socio-cultural and religious fabric and life. Consequently, the nineteenth century witnessed a socio-cultural, religious and literary resurgence in India – what is commonly known as the Renaissance in the modern India. Apart from the social reforms, another remarkable feature of these movements was rediscovery and redefining of the Hindu religious practices and rituals based on Vedas and Upanishads; and the central theme of all these religious movements was monotheism i.e. a professed philosophy of making adherents believe in worship of one God.
Among many such reformers and modern age saints, Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj, was one who dedicated his whole life towards the propagation of the message of the Vedas. He was one saint and reformer who had a staunch belief in the authority of Vedas and considered them infallible. He even completed the interpretation and commentary on Yajurveda and many mandalas of the Rigveda, and published its essence as Rigvedadibhashya-bhumika. Till then, the Vedas were largely considered as the cumbersome books of rituals for the priestly class. Efforts of Swami Dayanand made the contents of Vedas accessible and available to even common people with their easy interpretation. One of the most remarkable point made by him was that the Vedas preach Monotheism i.e. one God. According to him, the Vedas establish one God Who has countless virtues and is known by different names and forms including the material entities.
For illustration, let’s take the very first mantra of Rig Veda (Hymn 1.1):
Aum Agnimile purohitam yajnasya devamritvijam | hotaram ratnadhatamam ||
(I adore Agni, who stands in front of the Master (God), who is Divine, knower of Truth, a brilliant warrior.)
While many Indian and Western scholars interpret Agni as materialistic fire but Swami Dayanand interpreted Agni as the source of illumination of all noble activity. In the same way, Swami Dayanand interpreted different natural deities like Indra, Vayu , Aditya, Savita, Varna etc. as different materialistic entities and forms (manifestations) glorifying the same Brahman or Ishwar (God). According to him, this interpretation was in concordance and commensurate with the Vedic philosophy followed by the ancient rishis. In fact, there are numerous verses/mantras in Vedas that establish the belief in Monotheism.
The concept Brahman (God) is referred to in several hymns in the Vedas. For illustration, it is found in Rig Veda hymns 2.2.10, 6.21.8, 10.48.1 and 10.72.2 and Atharva Veda hymns 6.122.5, 10.1.12, and 14.1.131. The concept is also referred to at several places in various layers of the Vedic literature, such as Taittiriya Brahmana, Aitareya Brahmana, Kausitaki Brahmana, Satapatha Brahmana, Jaiminiya Brahmana, Taittiriya Aranyaka, Vajasaneyi Samhita and Maitrayani Samhita. Besides, the concept of Brahman is extensively discussed in the Upanishads embedded in the Vedas. The translated version of a few verses from different Vedas is reproduced below highlighting the nature of Vedic God.
Rig Veda 10.48.1
Ishwar alone is omnipresent and manager of entire universe. He alone provides victory and eternal cause of world. All souls should look up only to Him in same manner as children look up to their Father. He alone provides for our sustenance and bliss.
Rig Veda 10.48.5
Ishwar enlightens the entire world. He is undefeated and undying. He alone is the creator of the world. All souls should seek bliss through seeking knowledge and acting there upon. They should never shun the friendship of Ishwar.
Rig Veda 10.49.1
Ishwar alone provides true knowledge to truth seekers. He alone is promoter of knowledge and motivates virtuous people into noble actions to seek bliss. He alone is the creator and manager of the world. Hence worship none else except one and only Ishwar.
Yajur Veda 13.4
There is One and only One Creator and Maintainer of the entire world. He alone is sustaining the earth, sky and other heavenly bodies. He is Bliss Himself! He alone deserves to be worshipped by us.
Yajur Veda 32.11
Ishwar resides at each point in universe. No space is devoid of Him. He is self-sustaining and does not need help of any agent, angel, prophet or incarnation to perform His duties. The soul which is able to realize this One and only One Ishwar achieves Him and enjoys unconditional ultimate bliss or Moksha.
Yajur Veda 40.1
The entire creation is inhabited by all-pervading and omnipresent Ishwar. One should enjoy the world with the underlying idea that every object of enjoyment will have to be renounced one day. God is subtler than subtlest; finer than the finest stratum in the universe, and hence is called Kham (Brahman) in the last mantra.
Atharva Veda 10.7.38
Ishwar alone is greatest and worth being worshipped. He is the source of all knowledge and activities.
Atharva Veda 13.4.16-21
He is neither two, nor three, nor four, nor five, nor six, nor seven, nor eight, nor nine, nor ten. He is, on contrary, One and Only One. There is no Ishwar except Him. All devatas reside within Him and are controlled by Him. So He alone should be worshipped, none else.
Thus a large number of mantras in Vedas suggest that there is only one God in existence. In fact, the term Ishwar alone has been used as many as 118 times in these scriptures. The Vedas depict Brahman or Ishwar as the Ultimate Reality or Universal Self. According to Vedas, Brahman is the indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute infinite existence, and the ultimate principle without a beginning and end , who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. In essence, Brahman is beyond description and can be perceived through the spiritual experience only.
The later scriptures mainly the embedded Upanishads had discussed and explained the nature of Brahman in a more lucid manner. Srimad Bhagavad Gita beautifully explains the Brahman and His Nirguna (without personal attributes) and Saguna (with attributes) aspects. Thus the Hindu religion is essentially monotheistic in nature and belief and different personified or materialistic deities are aspects of the same Brahman or Ishwar. It is the simplified and convenient approaches of worship, ignorance and misconception on the part of people in India and overseas that gives an impression as if the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) is a polytheistic religion.
Vedas – Devta and Yajna
Vedas talk about a number of devtas (gods) and yajna (sacrifice) which is interpreted by many as the worship of multiple gods and animal killing, respectively to please gods. Swami Dayanand had analysed and answered these questions in a logical and convincing manner. Vedas frequently refer and glorify multiple deities (devtas) like Indra, Agni, Vayu, Varuna etc. Based on Nirukta, perhaps the oldest known Indian treatise on etymology, philology and sementics, he established that the term devta was used for any entity that provides knowledge, wisdom, happiness, enlightment and peace in Vedic philosophy. Accordingly, the term devta qualifies for the God and other entities like the king or ruler, parents, Guru or teacher, components of nature like Sun, Water, Air, Earth and Sky etc. They are all venerable and glorified as ‘devta’ but the only one who is to be worshiped is almighty God.
Similarly, he dispelled the age old myth that the Vedas support animal sacrifice in yajnas. While some medieval Indian Acharyas and Western Indologists vehemently argue to prove the point of the animal sacrifice, Swami Dayanand interpreted and inferred that the true meaning of the Ashvamedha was to serve the state and not to kill the horse. Similarly, he upheld Gomedha as sanctification of grain, body and earth rather than killing the cow, and Narmedha as ritualistic last rites after death and not to kill a human being to achieve some objective. He insisted that the Vedas consider cow as adhvara and aghanya i.e. never to be killed or hurt, respectively.
Vedas – A Source of Scientific Knowledge
Traditionally, the religion and science are always in conflict. It’s so because in scientific parlance everything has to be very precise, true, logical and sustainable, while religious texts are often based on mythology beyond credible facts usually with poetic text quite often too dynamic, free-flowing offering several possibilities. Swami Dayanand was the first Indian scholar in the modern era who welcomed the sciences and tried to establish that the Vedas have scientific base and flavour. Particularly through his work Rigvedadibhashya-bhumika, he endeavoured to establish that Vedas were the source of all true knowledge without inherent contradictions. He even identified and put forth different Veda hymns bearing the credible knowledge of the science of Astronomy, Medicine, Telegraphy etc.
Undoubtedly, Vedas are the jewels of wisdom and knowledge of the ancient Hindu culture and religion but with universal appeal and application even in the concurrent era. It is the matter of correct understanding and interpretation of the divine language that poses issues for many modern day scholars and Indologists who tend to derive erroneous concepts and teachings from the scriptures. Scholars like Swami Dayanand devoted a lifetime working on Vedas and have clarified several misconceptions and misinterpretations like polytheism, sacrifice, divine worship etc. There are ample mantras in different Vedas to illustrate and understand the Vedic concept of monotheism. Vedas glorify several natural and material phenomenon and entities relevant to life but speak of only one almighty God, with different names/forms based on different qualities/virtues.
**[Note: The available Vedas text, Arya Samaj website/blog and some spiritual writings have been consulted with gratitude while compiling translated version of hymns/mantras from different Vedas quoted in this section.]
Continued to Part XX