by Swami Krishnananda
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.