The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Veda Mantras

If the culture of a country may be said to be decided by its religious outlook, its religion may be said to be based on scripture and popular literature connected with similar themes. We shall consider, at the outset, the literature of India, which is mainly in the Sanskrit language. These volumes of scriptural writing have not only sowed the seed of India's outlook of life as a whole, but have managed to influence public thinking, even at the present hour.

Sanskrit literature is very vast, and it ranges from any subject to any other subject. The earliest recorded document is a religious scripture, the Rigveda, followed by the other Vedas, known as the Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. The Sanskrit scriptures are not confined merely to the Vedas. These original scriptures, the Vedas, are also known as the Srutis. 'Sruti' means 'something that is heard'. These great books were not written on paper; actually, they were not written at all. They were recited by a teacher, and heard by the disciple. Therefore, one learned in the sacred lore of the Veda is regarded as a srotri—one who is well-rooted in the Sruti, which is that which is heard and then recited, not read from a book or studied independently. There was no such thing as independently studying the Veda; such a procedure did not exist.

While the Sruti is the primary scripture—the root, as it were, of the further branches of Sanskrit learning—its themes are expanded in various forms through the other groups of Sanskrit writing known as the Smritis, the Itihasas, the Puranas, the Agamas and Darshanas. These constitute such a vast area of study that no single individual can be said to be a master of them all. We are here to only run our eye over an outline of the essential contents, themes and purposes of these writings, which act as a scaffolding of the outlook of life enshrined by India even to this day.

The original foundational guideline of this vast religious outlook is the Veda, which means a body of knowledge. The word 'Veda' comes from the root 'vid', meaning 'to know'. While there are textbooks on arts and sciences, which also can be regarded as bodies of knowledge, how is it that we consider the Veda alone as an embodiment of knowledge? By 'knowledge', here we do not mean empirical understanding. We mean that which cannot be known through the processes of perception and inference, or the usual means of knowledge available to man; that which eludes the grasp of the highest endowments of man—the reason or intellect included. That has to be known. The means by which the transcendent reality is known is the Veda, the true knowledge—knowledge of Reality as such. It is not empirical knowledge, or knowledge of objects of sense; it is also not intellectual knowledge or scientific deduction; it is not logic; and it is not any kind of information that is gathered by experiment and observation. It is an intuitive grasp of the complete availability of Reality in its wholeness, and hence, it is knowledge that is religious, holy, or spiritual.

The belief of the learned and the devout is that this intuitive revelation called the Veda records that type of knowledge which comprehends within its immediate grasp all the aspects of That which Is. To know a thing is to know it from every aspect and from every point of view. Our faculties, which are mainly psychological, are incapable of comprehending any object from all points of view. There is only a partial knowledge—sensory or intellectual—of anything. All the characteristics of an object cannot be grasped by the faculties by which we know things empirically. True knowledge is a complete grasp of the internal structure of an object, whatever that object be.

Hence, the Veda is supposed to give us a knowledge of That which really Is, and which does not merely appear through the senses by changing form. Appearance is that which changes its colours, its structure, its pattern, its form. Therefore, our knowledge of the world may be said to be relative knowledge, or knowledge of appearance. It is knowledge of appearance because it is knowledge of that which changes; it is not knowledge of that which is permanent. Hence, our knowledge also progresses, inasmuch as the characteristics of the object of knowledge change in the process of evolution. But there is no progress in intuitive knowledge; it is a complete grasp of Eternity itself.

Thus, it is difficult to know the true meaning of these revelations known as the Veda mantras. They are supposed to give us the external aspect, the internal aspect, and also the transcendent aspect of the subject which they treat or are supposed to comprehend. Hence, there is a variety of interpretation of the Vedas.

The adhiyajna and the adhibhautika interpretations give us a meaning of the Veda mantras with its relevance to the objects of the external world and religious performances in the form of various rituals and external practices. These days, most of the translations of the Vedas are of this type. They give a linguistic, philological or apparent meaning of the words as they could be etymologically grasped with the help of a dictionary or compendium.

The tradition has been to utilise or employ these mantras of the Vedas in religious performances called yajnas or sacrificial worships. Hence, many of the interpreters of the Veda have taken a stand which is empirical, physical, and ritualistic. The great commentary of Sayana is the standard exposition of the Veda. He was a master, an incomparable genius. To write such a voluminous exposition of all the mantras of all the Vedas—not merely the Samhitas, but also the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads—is not a human task. Sayana must have really been a superhuman individual. He has written masterly expositions in lucid Sanskrit on the entire body of Vedic literature. Sayana is regarded as the brother of Vidyaranya. He was not an ordinary person, because the lifespan of an individual is not sufficient even to read all that he has written, so how he wrote it is a wonder indeed. However, he has taken a ritualistic stand primarily, though he sometimes touches upon the religious, the devotional, and the meditational aspects when he sketches some cosmological hymns.

The external meaning of anything is not the only meaning. The description of a human being is not the description of the length and breadth of that individual's body. The chemical composition of the body does not describe the personality of the man, as we know very well. Likewise, a philological interpretation of the Veda cannot be said to give the real content or intention behind the revelation, which is intuitive and all-grasping. There is also the adhyatmika meaning, which has been attempted by such masters as Madhvacharya, who has written an exposition of the first forty chapters of the Rigveda.

There is also a transcendent meaning. We are told in an anecdote that certain devotees went to Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa and importuned him to explain to them the meaning of the Veda. It appears that he uttered one sentence: Ananta vai vedah. The Veda is infinite and, therefore, it cannot be explained in finite terms. The idea is that the Veda is not a book. It is not a text; it is not printed matter. It is not even a body of letters or words, but an embodied form of a revelation or a flash of wisdom which has Truth as its object. Such is the intent behind the mantras of the Vedas.

They are called mantras because they are supposed to protect when they are recited or chanted properly according to the requisite system. The mantras of the Veda are powerful incantations which can be utilised for any purpose according to the circumstances of the case, even for purposes other than religious.

People have attempted to discover empirical science and even technological means in the mantras of the Vedas. For instance, a Shankaracharya of recent past wrote a book on Vedic mathematics, culling mantras from the Atharvaveda particularly, where he demonstrates that Pythagoras' theorem, trigonometry, and higher mathematics are all hidden within the outer form of the philological structure of the Veda mantras. However, suffice it to say that because of the fact that they are supposed to contain an intention which is all-comprehensive and divine in its nature, the Veda is called a holy scripture.

The Vedas are four in number: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda. The Rig is a systematically composed mantra. It is very scientific in its makeup; and when it is set to music, it becomes the Sama. With the exception of a few mantras, the Samaveda is nothing but mantras from the Rigveda that have been culled and set to tune—a musical intonation of the mantras. The Yajurveda is practically in prose, interspersed with mantras in poetry. The Atharvaveda is variegated in its compass and touches many themes, not only religious but also secular.

The mantras as a whole, in a group, are called the Samhita. It is called Samhita because the words of the sentence are arranged in a particular order, and they have to be recited with a system of intonation which is called Shiksha, or the science of phonetics. They cannot be chanted however we like. They are not to be read as we read a work of prose or a novel. These bodies of mantras are called the Samhita because of the necessity to conform to a principle of intonation and chanting, and because they form a compact whole in themselves.

One of the purposes for which the mantras are used is ritual, or performance of sacrifice, worship, etc. The method of the employment of these mantras in sacrifice or ritualistic worship is described in another body of scriptures called the Brahmanas. They are mostly in prose, with a little poetry here and there; but they are very splendid prose, not ordinary language.

Many of the Brahmanas have as an appendix to them the Aranyakas and the Upanishads, which are supposed to be conceptual meditations or internal contemplations of the very form of the external worship of the sacrifice which the Brahmanas describe as a sort of mandate on the religious man through the utilisation or employment of the mantras of the Samhitas. As we go further, from the Samhita to the Brahmana, and from the Brahmana to the Aranyaka, etc., we find a change of outlook and appreciation of values in the Vedic body of literature. There is a total grasp of the whole of phenomena in the Veda mantras, where they begin to visualise the Creator in the forms of manifestation. There is no temple in the Rigveda, and no particular form of God is described. Creation as a whole is taken as the manifestation of the One Almighty; therefore, even the dawn and the sunrise, the seasons, the rainfall, the wind, the heat and cold, whatever it be, can be regarded as a fit object of religious and spiritual worship because of the recognition of the Almighty Being in the so-called manifestation. The plurality of perception is taken advantage of for the purpose of the worship of the unity behind this plurality. As we go further, from the earlier portions of the Rigveda to the later portions, especially when we come to the Tenth Mandala, we will find cosmological hymns which fly high in poetry, composition and force of imagination, wherein they describe and portray a mighty ideal which seems to be the principal motif of the whole Vedic literature.

The chanting of the mantra is not merely for the purpose of the performance of a yajna, a sacrifice, but it can also be directly employed for meditation and prayer. Thus, the Veda mantras have a double purpose. They are the means to the contemplation of the Almighty in a form or offering of a prayer in some way, and they can also be utilised for ritualistic performances. While the Brahmanas lay much emphasis on the utilisation of the Veda mantras for sacrificial purposes, the Aranyakas lay stress on the internal contemplative purpose of the Veda mantras. We can worship God merely by thought, without any kind of external apparatus, performance or religious ritual. This is the purpose of the Aranyakas, which conceptualise psychologically, inwardly, the external form given to the application of the process in the Brahmanas. We are gradually treading a mystical realm, as it were, so that when we are in the Upanishads, we rise high above the level of the empirical interpretation of the Veda and touch its inner core. The tattva—the essential meaning, the quintessence, the last word, anta, of the Veda—is reached in the Upanishads. After having said everything, we ask, "What is your last word?" The last word of the Veda is the Upanishad. That is why it is called the Vedanta.

This is the primary foundational literature of India's religion: the Veda Samhita, the Brahmana, the Aranyaka, and the Upanishad. The body of the Veda, or the Sruti, is an order that is issued to be obeyed, and not merely a persuasion to our emotions to do a good act.

The comprehensiveness of the Veda mantras is such that it requires an explanation of their various points of view through the remaining branches of Sanskrit literature, known as the Smritis, the Itihasas, the Puranas, etc. The religious aspect is one thing, but there are other aspects of life. Man is not merely one particular function. He is not only a total being, but also an inward psyche and an external social unit. Because of the fact that the grasp of the mantras of the Veda has been comprehensive, intuitional, and they have touched upon every value of life, personal and social included, other branches of Sanskrit learning began to emphasise certain aspects which are subsumed in this totality of the Veda Samhita.

The Smriti emphasised only the ethical, moral, and legal aspects. The inspirational side took its form in the mighty epics—the Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc.—which were expanded in a more practical form in the Puranas. The ritualistic and the worship aspects took form in the Agamas and Tantras. The logical side of philosophical disquisition took form in the Darshanas. There are six branches of religious Sanskrit literature—Sruti, Smriti, Itihasa, Purana, Agama, and Darshana—apart from secular literature such as the Kavyas, the poems of Kalidasa, etc., the Natakas or the dramas, and such other popular didactic literature such as the Panchatantra, the Hitopadesa, and the works of Bhartrihari. All these present an ocean of outlook which, when they are studied with a purely scholarly spirit, give us some insight into the depths to which great minds in India have reached.