The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 7: An Outline of the Vedas

In our survey of culture, we noticed the historical antecedents which suggested the implied causes of the ruin of cultures and the downfall of empires. Also, we could observe the presence of a supernatural purpose operating through human history, as if human beings are only the tools of the gods or vehicles through which nature fulfils her intentions. The philosophy of history is, therefore, an essential study in the understanding of the meaning and chronology of human history.

The cultural history of a country is involved not merely in the frail individualities of human beings or their empirical desires and expectations, but conditioned by a superior purpose, so that history becomes a cosmic motivation and not merely an empirical succession. These were some of the ideas through which we passed in our studies so far; and after this introductory approach to the vast subject, we entered into the precincts of India's cultural history, which we noticed is founded upon the basic concept of an integration of life's values commonly classified as the Purusharthas, or the objectives of human existence—dharma, artha, kama, moksha—the practical implementation of which is attempted through the classification of society through the varnas, and the arrangement in an ascending order of the life of the individual by means of ashrama dharma. Then, we had occasion to note the influence that scriptures exert upon the cultural outlook of a nation. We casually scanned through the various scriptures of India, especially those available in the Sanskrit language. Primarily, Indian culture is a Sanskrit culture, though it absorbs into itself the sidelights that are thrown upon it by other forms of outlook engendered by vernacular literature and also, to some extent, customs and traditions.

The foundational scripture of India is the Veda, hallowed as knowledge which is an embodied form of divine wisdom which concerns itself with the revelation of realities that are inaccessible to the human senses and understanding. It is, therefore, apaurusheya—not written by man. Man cannot write a book on matters which he cannot understand and which lie beyond the ken of his perception. It is impossible to believe that man could have written the Veda, inasmuch as if it was a text with a human authorship, it would confine itself only to empirical knowledge and could not give us knowledge which is revelatory, spiritual, transcendent, and divine beyond human comprehension. The Veda is not written; it is not a printed book. It is not a book at all, in the modern sense of the term. It is a body of revelations which were handed down as a Sruti, or what is heard in a sacred manner from Guru to disciple. The Veda is known as a Sruti. It is what is heard, and not what is read in a library, as we do these days. It is sacred, hallowed, divine, and adored and worshipped as an embodiment of divine knowledge.

The Vedas are a very complicated body of knowledge. They are not a stereotyped, single beaten track of approach, but are composed of strata which vary in accentuation and even in the content of their knowledge. We usually classify the Vedas into four—the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda—the oldest being the Rigveda Samhita. It is said that there are more than one thousand recensions of the Veda, and there is an Upanishad attached to each recension. So there should be that large a number of Upanishads—most of which are not available today. Nor do we have access to these recensions, which are so large in number. Basically only a few recensions are available, which differ from one another in a few instances of phraseology, accent, intonation, etc., but not essentially. However, for our purposes, we may say that the Vedas are only four, irrespective of these minor details of recensions, etc.

The Rigveda is the primary bible of India's culture. It is a collection of hymns, known as mantras. There is a difference between what we call a sloka in Sanskrit, and a mantra in religious parlance. For instance, the Bhagavadgita, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the writings of Kalidasa are in slokas or verses. The Vedas are composed in a style which is metrical like verses, no doubt, but has a sacrosanct affiliation which makes it considered to be a mantra—a divine revelation and a force, rather than merely an expression of poetic fancy. The other difference between a mantra and a sloka is that a sloka can be chanted in any manner one likes, but a mantra can be chanted only in one way—like a raga in music. One cannot have different approaches to a single raga. It is stereotyped and set, and everyone has to sing a particular raga in that way only. Likewise is this metrical chant, especially of the mantras of the Rigveda.

Hence, even today the Veda pathshalas, where Gurus teach the Veda mantras to disciples, follow this scientific approach of systematically introducing the mind of the student to the chanting of the mantra. This cannot be done by study or surface reading, just as music cannot be learnt by reading a book. It requires a teacher. There are very complicated systems introduced in the study of the mantras, as I mentioned, which only a Veda pathaka knows. The student is first made to repeat each syllable of the mantra three times. Afterwards, when the disciple is accustomed to chanting each syllable or word three times, one fourth of the mantra is chanted three times in the presence of the Guru. Then he has to chant the whole mantra three times. So, when he comes to the recitation of a mantra in its completeness, he recites it nine times. Only then is he supposed to have mastery over the pronunciation, and not before. Then he has to go on repeating by rote all the mantras of the hymn, with proper intonation and accent, as many times as is necessary until he commits it to memory.

This is a great science which is embodied in the limb of the Veda called the Shiksha Vedanga. There are six limbs of the Veda, which are accessories to the study of the Vedic scriptures. One of them is the phonetic system known as the Shiksha, wherein is laid down the principles of chant, pronunciation, intonation, etc. The importance given to the manner of the accent and the intonation during the chant of a mantra can be known when it is told to us that irrespective of uttering the words correctly, certain rishis changed the meaning and the intention of the chant by a change of the tone when they were expected to produce an enemy of Indra who would destroy him. As the rishis did not wish that such a person should be produced by the sacrifice, nor did they wish to displease the person who employed them for this purpose, they uttered the mantra but changed the tune, and the opposite element rose up from the sacrifice, which instead of destroying Indra, was destroyed by Indra. Such is the importance that is attached to the way of intonation and the method of chant. Thus, we can appreciate the importance attached to chanting the mantra in a particular way—as distinguished from the slokas, which can be recited in various ways according to one's own predilections.

The meticulous care with which the ancient masters preserved the Veda can be appreciated if we know that not even one letter of the Veda has changed, nor has the Veda increased or decreased by even one letter during the ages or centuries that have passed. The credit should go to the great panditas of the Veda, who by the methods of pada, krama, jata, etc., maintained this precision of chant and word formation to such an extent that it is a marvel of how the sacred lore was maintained, which is unparalleled in religious history in the world.

I mentioned that Shiksha is one of the angas or limbs of the Veda, which concerns itself with phonetics, or the intonation with which the mantras are to be recited. There are five other accessories to the study of the Veda—five other angas, or limbs, as they are called. Grammar, or Vyakarana, is one of the limbs of the Veda. Unless the grammatical structure of the words of the mantra is known clearly, its meaning will not be apprehended. Panini has been recognised as the foremost grammarian among the many others. He was not the only grammarian of India. There were at least eight grammarians before him, it is believed; he was perhaps the last and the most prominent, and is accepted to be the final word in Sanskrit grammar. In his great work called the Ashtadhyayi, Panini classifies Vedic Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit into two groups, so there is what is called Vedic grammar and classical Sanskrit grammar. Vedic grammar is mostly not studied these days; students of Sanskrit confine themselves only to classical grammar. However, the study of grammar is very essential to understand the meaning of the mantras of the Veda because they are written in a very archaic style of Sanskrit, not the modern Sanskrit which people speak and study. Therefore, Vyakarana is an essential limb of the study of the Veda because without it, its meaning cannot be known.

The third limb or anga is the Chandas, the metre. The metre is the way in which the mantra is composed, as in a poem. The speciality of the metre of a Veda mantra is that a particular metre is considered not merely as a way of the juxtaposition of the letters of the mantra, but a force which is injected into the mantra as a cohesive power. The metre produces one particular effect—and not another effect—in the same way as a particular intonation produces one particular effect. Thus, the meaning or the effect produced by the chanting of the mantra depends not merely on the words and the grammatical meaning thereof, but also the intonation and the metre in which it is composed. This is something very marvellous indeed.

Another anga or limb of the Veda is Nirukta, or the etymology, lexicon—or what we may call the dictionary in modern language. The etymological meaning of the roots of the words of the Veda is given in a body of literature called the Nirukta. The most famous of the Niruktas is by Yaska, the great rishi who explains the etymological derivations of each word, or at least the most important words, occurring in the Veda mantras.

Then there is another anga or limb of the Veda, known as Jyotisha or astronomy. The foundation of astronomy in India was laid by the Vedic seers themselves, who found it necessary to understand the movement of the planets and the entire stellar system so that they could perform oblations, prayers and sacrifices to the deities or the gods at an opportune time which is very auspicious and conducive to the production of the intended result of the prayer or the sacrifice—which, of course, depends upon the conjunction of the planets. So, the foundation of the beginnings of the science of astronomy was laid by great seers like Varahamihira, Aryabhata, etc., who elaborated this science into a marvellous mathematical technique of astronomical observations.

The practical side of the purposes of the Veda is delineated in a body of scriptures known as the Kalpa Sutras. These Sutras are of four types—Shulba Sutras, Shrauta Sutras, Grihya Sutras, and Dharma Sutras. These days no one even knows their names, but they are still there because they are directly connected with the performance of the religious ceremonies, prayers and sacrifices intended by the Veda, and the way in which one has to live and conduct oneself in life, personally and socially. The Shulba Sutras are aphorisms which set down rules and regulations concerning the laying of the foundation for sacrificial altars, even to the minute details of the length of the garbhagriha, the number of bricks, the length and breadth of the altar, etc. They are directly connected with the external performance of sacrificial rites. While the Shulba Sutras are concerned with external nature, the Shrauta Sutras concern themselves with the internal apparatus of sacrifice. The methodology, the details, the chronological order, and every blessed minutia concerning the application of the mantras in the sacrifice, etc., are detailed in the Shrauta Sutras, which are very vast in their survey. The Grihya Sutras concern themselves with the rites and ceremonies, and the rules and regulations to be observed by a householder regarding his life, for transforming his personal and family life into a veritable sacrifice in the religious sense. The Dharma Sutras lay the foundation for what we today call the Smritis or the Dharma Shastras, which give details as to the regulative, ethical and moral principles of society and the individuals in society. The foremost among the Dharma Shastras, or the Smritis that arose out of these Dharma Sutras, is the Manava Dharma Shastra—or the Manusmriti, as it is known—and many other Smritis arose later on.

Hence, Shiksha, Vyakarana, Chanda, Nirukta, Jyotisha, and Kalpa are the Vedangas, the essential ingredients or accessories to the Vedic knowledge which is embodied in the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads.

The Vedas are four, and each Veda is divided into four sections—or, we can say, four books—known as the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Samhita is a collection of hymns or prayers—chants and the incantation of formulae addressed to the gods and the divinities to summon them for various purposes. The Samhitas are mainly four—Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. In the Yajurveda, there are two sections again—the Shukla and the Krishna. The Krishna Yajurveda is supposed to be older, and the Shukla comes later and is ascribed to the seership of Yajnavalkya Rishi. The Samhitas are, therefore, prayers offered to the divinities. The Rigveda is the principal Samhita. It is a metrical chant which is very systematic and scientific. The Yajurveda Samhita is partly in poetry and partly in prose, while the Rigveda Samhita is wholly poetry. The Samaveda is, with the exception of seventy-five mantras, a repetition of the whole of the Rigveda, only set to music as a chant. The Samaveda is not merely a poetic recitation like the Rigveda, but a musical transformation given to it. The Atharvaveda is a very large conglomeration of various themes which are practical in nature, including even medical science, astronomy, etc., and incantations, imprecations and applications of formulae, and summonings of various types, both earthly and unearthly.

The Brahmanas are books of prose which are lengthy narrations of the procedure to be adopted in the application of the Samhita mantras for sacrifices and other practical uses. But the Brahmanas are also a rich literature of a different type. They are not merely ritual injunctions for the performance of sacrifice, though mostly they are that. They also constitute a rich literary piece containing legends and stories, laying the foundation, as it were, of the epics and the Puranas, which were to come in a larger form later on; and they even touch upon such subjects as astronomy. Even before the birth of Copernicus it was already declared in the Aitareya Brahmana that the Sun does not move; the Sun only appears to move but is actually stationary, and it is the Earth that moves, not the Sun. This proclamation is found in the Aitareya Brahmana, though these days we credit this knowledge to Copernicus because we never read our Vedas and do not know what rich treasure they contain. The Brahmanas such as the Aitareya, and the Satapatha especially, are grand forms of literature, majestic in their sweep and stimulating in their subjects; and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is the tail end of the Satapatha Brahmana. Each Aranyaka, or Upanishad, is attached to a particular Brahmana.

I have told you something about the nature of the Brahmanas, whose appendices, as it were, are the Aranyakas, which are the esoteric texts which interpret the exoteric injunctions of the Brahmanas in a mystical style. In the Aranyakas there is a gradual attempt made to inwardise the externalised approach of the Brahmanas through the sacrifices and the prayers offered to outward gods. The gods of the Veda, which appear to be external to us and controlling the phenomena outside in nature, and the rituals and sacrifices which we are expected to perform for the satisfaction of these gods, are now envisaged as internal forces operating through a subtle cosmos. That prayer and sacrifice do not require any external apparatus or material is what we gather from the study of the Aranyakas, wherein we have the seed sown for internal meditation and a proclamation of the possibility of contacting Reality purely through mental operation. These are without any kind of external aid that is necessary for the Brahmana sacrifices, which are rich externally, demanding a lot of financial expense and even physical fatigue. The great yajnas contemplated in the Aranyakas are a mystical introversion of the very same yajnas and sacrifices described in the Brahmanas.

The gods to whom we offer our prayers through the mantras of the Veda Samhitas are not outside us. Though they appear outside, or seem to be external to us due to the largeness of the universe, they are not really outside. They are so related to us that they are not even an inch away from us. Thus, to contact these gods, an outward ceremony is not necessary; no material of any kind is essential. What is required is only our mind, our thought, our consciousness, our being. This system was practised in the forests, while the yajnas of the Brahmanas were performed mostly in the yajnashalas of royal palaces and ritualistically consecrated halls especially devoted and dedicated for the purpose.

The Aranyakas are the first attempt at a mystical approach to the performances of the individual, whether personally, or in family or in society. The Upanishads are the crowning apex of the attempts of the Aranyakas, and give the final stamp of the possibility and practicability of communion with the powers of nature, with the gods of the heavens, and with the Supreme Creator Himself by an adjustment of thought within, and a surrender of personality. This is a vast subject which forms an independent topic of discussion.

Thus, we have the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Vedas are four in number—Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva—attached to which are the Vedangas, or the limbs, six in number, which I already mentioned. There is also what are known as the Upavedas, or the auxiliary Vedas, four in number—Ayurveda, Dhanurveda, Gandharvaveda, and Artha Shastra—each one connected to a particular Veda. Ayurveda is the science of medicine, health and long life, and is attributed to Dhanvantari, the divine sage who is supposed to have promulgated this great science of medicine and healing. This particular Upaveda is attached to the Rigveda. The Gandharvaveda is the science of music, or fine arts in general, we may say, which is connected with the Samaveda. The Dhanurveda is military science, which is attached to the Yajurveda. And the Artha Shastra is political science, economics, etc., which is attached to the Atharvaveda.

Thus, the body of the Veda seems to be a vast gamut of comprehension which, though it is regarded as a science of supernatural contact with gods and Reality, is also concerned with empirical life such as political science, military science, economics, etc.; and modern investigations have come to the conclusion that there are secrets in the Veda mantras which explain the mysteries of trigonometry, geometry, algebra, and higher mathematics. Perhaps even the science of aeronautics, the making of rockets and so on, is hiddenly present in the mystical passages of the Veda mantras, which are impossible to understand without a master who has delved deep into them—a specimen of which we cannot find these days. We have practically lost this great treasure of the Veda.

All this is connected with what is known as the Sruti. I have given only a very bare outline, a skeleton of this masterly foundation of India's culture; and everything else that we hear of—the Puranas, the Itihasas, the philosophical sciences, the Smritis, etc.—only are ramifications, explanations or commentaries of the basic intentions and foundational doctrines of the Veda-rashi, which is the most adorable body of knowledge we have in India.