Monday, 5 September 2011

The History and Tradition of the Vedas

"..writing is an urban phenomenon. To freeze the teachings of prophets in books regarded as sacred is to paralyze the spirit of research; it fixes so called established truths to create blind faith instead of search for knowledge. The nature of knowledge is to evolve. Like other aspects of human beings, it knows periods of progress and decline.- While the Gods Play by Alain Danielou
The Divine Origin of the Vedas

The word Veda means knowledge. It is derived from the root word Vid, which means to know. The Vedas are considered to be sacred and revealed knowledge. They are described as apaurusheya (not man made) and nitya (eternal). No one knows for sure how the hymns have come into existence or who were the earliest recipients of this body of divine knowledge. The Vedic tradition believes that the Vedas exist eternally and God brings them out at the beginning of each cycle of creation for the benefit of the worlds. The Vedas are considered to be the source books of religious knowledge. Many Hindus believe that without the Vedas it would be difficult for people to discern truth. The seven ancient rishis 1, who are known to the Hindu tradition as satparishs, were the earliest recipients of this knowledge. Since the Vedic hymns were either revealed or heard only, they constitute the shruti (heard) literature of the Hindu tradition

The Vedic hymns that we know are but an insignificant part of a vast body of knowledge that resides in the higher realms and known only to a chosen few. What we have are the revealed knowledge of a little portion of them. The Vedas are meant to protect dharma (religion) and maintain cosmic order (Rtam). They provide us with a glimpse of the macrocosmic and microcosmic aspects of our creation and existence and serve as a connecting link between the gods of the higher realms and humans as they are common to both. They reveal the knowledge of gods and our own inner subtle planes, where also most of the gods reside in subtle form and assist us in our spiritual awakening. The Vedas are not mere magical chants to appease gods or seek their blessings, but cryptic prayers in which are hidden many mysteries and symbols. They do produce magical results in the physical worlds although that is not the only reason why they have been revealed to us.

The Shruti Tradition

The Vedic tradition has been preserved for several centuries through a strict system of memorization by heart. Students would memorize the hymns day after day and year after year for several years (generally 12) under the close supervision of a teacher till they remembered each and every word and its pronunciation by heart. No deviations and exceptions were allowed as the hymns were divine in origin and human beings had no authority to change them or amend them even by mistake. Sometimes the students were made to remember the hymns without knowing their meaning, because the accuracy of the pronunciation and memory of the original hymns were more important in the order of things than their comprehension. The Vedic hymns were used in karmakanda or performing the rituals.

The Politics of Religion

The early vedic priests were employed in the courts of kings and emperors. They used their vedic knowledge for the welfare of the kings and their families. They chanted the mantras for their success in the battle field, or their general prosperity or for the protection and the protection of their kingdoms against diseases and natural calamities such as floods, famines, forest fires and electrical storms. If the kings were satisfied with their actions and convinced of their magical powers, they rewarded them with valuable gifts and protected them and their wealth.

Thus the relationship between the kings and the priests was one of enlightened self interest. As long as the king prospered, the priests prospered and maintained their hold on the king, his family and the nobility. Since their success very much depended upon the efficacy of the rituals, they strived to maintain the purity of the mantras and their accurate pronunciation and also adhere as correctly as possible to the procedural aspects of preparing the offerings, making the offerings and performing the rituals. As a result, in the later vedic period the ceremonial aspect (karmakanda) of the Vedas took precedence over their philosophical content (gnanakanda). While most of the Vedic mantras escaped corruption, the original meaning of many of the hymns was lost. Many hymns that were not used in the performance of the rituals or considered unnecessary for ceremonial purposes were also gradually forgotten. For a very long time the Vedas became mere books of chants or rituals, while their study and recitation became the exclusive privilege of a few priestly families, except for the aranyakas and the Upanishads which were studied exclusively in small groups by people dwelling in the forests and hermitages.

Confrontation and Compromise with Native Traditions

Some of the Rigvedic hymns are considered to be at least 5000 years old and composed before the Aryan families migrated to the Indian subcontinent in search of livelihood and royal patronage and some composed as early as 600 BC. In the later Vedic period, starting around 1500 BC, we see an increasing preponderance of magical rituals, as is evident in the Yajurveda, which probably became a necessity in view of the growing confrontation with the native traditions in the subcontinent and the demands of the newly converted Indian kings. Vedic priests who previously ignored or ridiculed the traditions of Jainas, Ajivakas, Saivas, Samkhyas, Vaisheshikas, Vaishnavas, Vrishnis (of Lord Krishna) and even Buddhists as the traditions of the low castes, made peace with them through a clever process of integration and adoption.

Firstly, they acknowledged many popular gods and goddesses such as Vishnu, Siva and Shakti and relegated into the background the popular Rigivedic gods such as Varuna, Brahma and Indra. Secondly they acknowledged many native methods of worship such as idol worship, puja and temple rituals. Thirdly, they also adopted and incorporated the fundamental concepts and ideas of many schools of philosophy such as Yoga, Samkhya and Vaisheshika. Fourthly, they expanded the scope of caste system conveniently to absorb the new converts into different caste divisions depending upon their social and vocational status and their political and economic influence. Those who were denied proper recognition or dissatisfied with the new developments converted to other religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. The process reached its culmination in the post Gupta period when the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was recognized as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and Sankaracharya integrated many concepts of Saivism into Vedism through his reinterpretation of the Brahmasutras, the Upanishads and the Vedas from the perspective of the monistic schools of Saivism.

The Organization of the Vedas

The Vedas are divided into three parts:

1. The Samhitas,
2. The Brahmanas and
3. The Upanishads, the Aranyakas and the Sutra literature
The Samhitas
The samhitas are the main textual portions of the Vedas containing the hymns or the suktas. The Rigveda Samhita contains 1017 or 1028 suktas or hymns, divided into ten divisions or mandalas. Each Mandala correspond with the name of a Rishi who was probably instrumental in its creation. These divisions however do not correspond with the order in which they were created. For example the first and the tenth Mandalas are considered to be latter day compositions compared to the rest.

The Samaveda Samhita is known as the Book of Chants. It contains 1549 (or according to some 1810) hymns which are meant to be sung by a special class of priests known as Udgatris at the time of soma sacrifice. Most of the hymns in this samhita are copied verbatim from the Rigveda and the remaining few from other existing sources. The hymns contained in this Samhita are more lyrical in nature and suggest to the early musical traditions of the Vedic people.

The Yajurveda Samhita is known as the Book of the Yajus (sacrificial prayers). The mantras are meant to be chanted by a special class of priests called adhavaryus during sacrificial ceremonies. The Samhita is divided into Black Yajurveda, which is a disorderly mixture of prose and chants, and the Whilte (Vajasaneyi) Yajurveda, which consists of only chants and contributed extensively by sage Yajnavalkya. The Black Yajurveda is considered to be older of the two and composed around 1200 BC.
For a long time the Atharvaveda was not considered a Veda at all. Kautilya's Arthashastra, for example, mentions only the first three. Atharvaveda Samhita contains mostly magical chants which alludes to the growing influence of the native kings over the Aryan traditions. The samhita is divided into 20 books and about 75 hymns which are essentially spells, marriage and burial songs and curses. The Atharvaveda samhita is the oldest document of the Indian medicine and magical formulas to deal with disease and sickness. The priests who chanted these hymns were prized by the royalty for their special ability to cure diseases and drive away the evils spirits or curse their enemies.

The Brahmanas

The Brahmanas are commentaries in prose on the hymns of the Vedas. They serve as guides for Brahman priests to understand the purport of the samhitas. They explain the meaning of the hymns and the procedures to be followed in performing various sacrifices. Each Veda (Samhita) has one or more Brahmanas.

• The Rigveda has two Brahmanas, Kaushitaki Brahmana and Aitareya Brahmana.

• The Samaveda has three Brahmanas, Tandya-maha Brahmana, Sadavinsa Brahmana and Jaiminiya Brahmana. These Brahmanas contain information about the then existing native people of India and the methods by which they should be admitted into the Aryan fold.

• The Satapatha Brahmana belongs to the Vajsaneya or White Yajurveda and believed to be composed byYajnavalkya. The Satapatha Brahmana is the most important of all the Brahmanas. It's title literally means the Brahmana of 100 paths. The Brahmana contains information about the important sacrificial ceremonies of the Vedic Aryans such as the asvamedha and rajasuya yajnas. It also deals with the relationship between the priests and the rulers. The Brihadarnyaka Upanishad is attached to this Brahmana.


The Aranyakas are forest books. They are the concluding portions of the Vedas. They are not about rituals but about the philosophical aspect of the Vedas and meant for people leading ascetic lives in the middle of forests. They deal with the esoteric aspects of important rites. The Aranyakas were meant not to be revealed to the general public because of their magical power, but only to those who lived in the forests and practiced austerities and self-control

The Upanishads

The Upanishads constitutes the end part of the Vedas (vedanta). They deal with philosophical and mystical aspects of Vedas and deal with subjects like Brahman, atman, nature of reality, the meaning of true knowledge, the state of oneness, the four states of consciousness, the constitution of the worlds, the nature of highest reality, the nature of true sacrifice and so on. They contain disjointed and loosely organized pieces of metaphysical and speculative truths about Brahman and Atman. Some of them are mere expositions, some are composed in narrative form and some in the form of conversations.

The Sutras

The Sutra literature was composed much later than the Vedas and belong to a later period. They are manuals of instructions for people to follow in their social, religious, economic and political affairs. They are a diverse body of literature, containing many scriptures which are loosely grouped together as sutra literature. It consists of

• the six Vedangas (Kalpa, Siksha, Vyakarna, Nirukta, Chhanda & Jyotisha)

• Nirukta of Yaksa

• Ashtadhyayi of Panini on Sanskrit grammar. Apart from its literary value, the work of Panini has great historical value.

• Strauta Sutras which deal with ceremonies

• the Grihya Sutras, which deal with domestic rules, duties, rites and sacrifices. We find information about the samskaras (sacraments), types of marriages, the five kinds of sacrifices and the seven types of pakayajnas, the four types of ashramas, the duties of various castes and so on.

• the Dharmashastras or religious law books (by Gautama, Baudhayana, Apastamba and Vashishta). The deal with code of conduct for various classes of people and various social and religious situations. The Dharmashastras are more like books of guidelines rather than law books.

The Significance of the Vedas

Most of the hymns in the Vedas do not make sense today because of the changes that took place in the Vedic religion in the last 3000 years. Many gods of the old vedic religion have vanished or yielded place to new gods of the subcontinent. It was the price the priests of the later Vedic period had to pay to withstand the popularity of the non vedic traditions and continue their own by securing the the support of the kings and the nobility with some compromises here and there. We have no idea how much of the Vedas were compromised and how much of it was kept intact. We know for sure that many of the ancient gods were sacrificed to keep the tradition alive and the priests in power.

Whatever might be the truth, the Vedas constitute the base as well as the hub of the Hindu tradition. For centuries they served as the source book of standards (pramana) to test the validity of a philosophical statements. If a truth was not supported by the Vedas it was not accepted as a philosophical truth. Those who disregarded this principle were considered as heretics and outside the fold of Hinduism. Even today many scholars tend to define a person as a Hindu only if he or she accepts the authority of the Vedas.

1. The seven sages are also identified with the constellation of Ursa Major. They are Bhrigu, Angirasa, Atri, Gautama, Kashyapa, Vashishta and Agasty

2. For lack of better expression we have to use the word composition. The vedas are not composed by any one. They were originally either heard or received from others in deep state meditation or trance and then passed on to others.

3. I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in knowing this integration of Vedism with the native religions of ancient India to read the book While The Gods Play by Alain Danielou

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