India’s Ancient Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 3: The Vedas – the Foundation of Indian Culture

The culture of India can be traced back to the Vedas, especially the Rigveda Samhita. Generally, the Veda is regarded as a religious scripture, and practically every so-called scripture in the world is considered as the basis of a particular religion. Therefore, an idea or an opinion has been formed by people generally that the culture of India is principally a religious culture, and inasmuch as religion is connected with the existence of God, this thought was further developed into the consequence thereof that Indian culture is not connected with this world so much as with the other world. This is a wrong notion, a wholly mistaken view of the content of the Veda Samhita.

The Samhitas are the basic feature or the face of the Vedas as a whole. There are four sections of each Veda, the four sections being Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The Upanishads are based on the Aranyakas, the Aranyakas on the Brahmanas, and the Brahmanas on the Samhitas. The mantras of the Veda Samhita are, therefore, the seed of the further development of thought which is the rock bottom of Indian culture.

Now, it is necessary to dispel the wrong notion that the foundation of Indian culture is otherworldly because religion is otherworldly, because God is not in this world. One thought leads to another thought. If God is not in this world, and He has to be reached in another world, then God becomes an otherworldly reality. This also is a wrong notion. God is not otherworldly, removed from this world. Therefore, religion cannot be regarded as otherworldly; it has a connection with this world. Therefore, the Samhitas are not the foundations of an otherworldly religion. They are connected with this very, very realistic existence of ours.

That the Veda Samhitas have different meanings from various points of view, I mentioned briefly the other day. I said there are five phases, at least, of the meaning of the Veda Samhita. Adhyatmika means the subjective psychological, and we may say, spiritual aspect; adhibhautika is the objective, the material and the external phase of life; adhidaivika is the transcendental vision, what we call the religious, ecclesiastical and divinely oriented, the so-called otherworldly aspect. The adhiyajnika is the phase of our actual action, work or encounters of this world; the field of activity is adhiyajna. Adhidharmika, the aspect of law and order, the regulative principle of life, is another aspect.

When you look at a thing, you have to look at it from various points of view. Everything in the world has a fivefold relation. A person also has a fivefold connotation. A person like me or like you, or like anybody else from the point of view of the physical or individual personality, is physiological, sociological, psychological, action-oriented, and law-bound. Just see how one person can be at the same time related to different aspects. A human being, though he may look independent by himself or herself, is a unit in human society. So a human individual is sociologically restrained and limited. A human being is a physical body with hunger and thirst and other demands, so a human being also is physical and material. A human being is very active and is compelled to do some work or the other; therefore, action-oriented also is a human individual. And every individual is restrained by a law or a regulation; either it is a socially-bound regulation, a community-bound regulation, a governmental regulation or a moral regulation. Some regulation is there which keeps us within bounds. We cannot overstep certain limits of human behaviour. You appreciate now that a single person is four things at the same time, and also a fifth thing in the sense that you are never satisfied with anything in this world. You look up for satisfaction to some reality which is above this world. The adhidaivika aspect also is working within.

If a human individual is involved in five ways at the same time, the teachings connected with the welfare of an individual also should have a fivefold connotation. So do not say that Indian culture is religion and it has no connection with the material world, it has no connection with duties in this world, and it is always looking to the skies above.

The Bhagavadgita, to mention only one instance among many others, is a very precise statement of this fivefold involvement of reality and value, the essence that has been set down from the Upanishads and the Veda. A passage says that the Upanishads are like a cow which yields milk, and the milk of this cow of the Upanishads is the Bhagavadgita. And the Upanishads are the essence of the Veda Samhita. I need not go into further detail as to the importance of the Veda Samhita, repeating the same thing again and again. Briefly I mentioned to you that the Veda Samhita is the foundation of Indian culture, but it is not religious in the sense people wrongly understand it because we always have a peculiar notion of religion being something connected with that which is not in this world, that it is connected with the divinity that is above. Not so is the truth.

The Veda is called Sruti. Sruti is a Sanskrit word which means ‘that which is heard’. In ancient days, the Vedas were studied by word of mouth. The teacher or the Master or the Guru would pronounce the Veda, and the disciple or the student would listen. The mantras were repeated several times in different ways by the teacher, and the student learned the art of pronunciation and articulation of the mantras of the Vedas through hearing only. The Guru split the particular verse or the mantra into its divisible parts. Nine times he said it, and the student repeated it nine times. It is understood that when a mantra is repeated nine times, the student has captured the art of proper articulation of the mantra. If the student is dull, it is repeated more than nine times.

So now you have some idea of the significance of the Vedas. Art and science, technology, material science, physiology, psychology, religion, metaphysics, and the art of living in this world – all these you will find implicit in the mantras of the Veda Samhita. This is why the Vedas are considered as the most holy of the scriptures.

I suggested the other day one or two books that you may read. I suggested only the writings of Aurobindo and Radhakrishnan, but I remember now one more small book which will be very interesting – a very small book, but very touching. The name of the book is Vedic Religion and Philosophy by Swami Prabhavananda of the Ramakrishna Mission. You may read it to your benefit. It is the same person wrote Spiritual Heritage of India. Vedic Religion and Philosophy contains three beautiful essays on the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavadgita. That is worth reading, as it is very well written.

The comprehensiveness of the Vedas being large, it was not easy for people to study the whole thing at one stroke; therefore, students took up studies of certain sections of the Veda only, as it was not practicable or feasible for them to take up the study of all things at the same time. Some students took up study of the Samhitas only. They learned it by rote and chanted and repeated it again and again, and they spent at least twelve years in mastering the pronunciation with intonation of the mantras of the Veda. At least twelve years it will take to learn the very chanting itself of the Veda Samhitas. Others took to the study of the ritualistic side, laying emphasis on karma kanda, as it is called. The yajnas, havans, homas, rituals, etc., are explained in great detail in the particular school of philosophy known as Mimamsa.

There are six systems of philosophy: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. Mimamsa is a school of philosophic thought which concerns itself entirely with the exposition of the ritualistic portion of the Vedas, the Brahmanas as they are called particularly. Those who were inclined to philosophical thought, meditation-oriented minds, took to the study of the Aranyakas and the Upanishads much more than the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. The great scholars called Sayanacharyas wrote commentaries on the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads – a giant of learning, a colossus of scholarship, I should say. Who could find time to write commentaries on all the Samhitas and the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas and the Upanishads while people could not manage to study even one section of it in their life? You can imagine the stature of the learning of these great persons such as Acharya Sayana, who was the brother of Vidyaranya, who wrote Panchadasi, etc.

The higher aspects or the phases of the meaning contained in the Vedas drew the attention of subsequent scholars and even rishis and sages, and they expatiated upon and commented upon one or the other of the aspects of the Vedas. Those who were interested only in the pronunciation, intonation and chanting of the Veda mantras took to further studies along those lines and entered into serious study of its grammar, phonetics, and the like, which led to the formation of six limbs of the Vedas, and these limbs are called Vedangas. Veda-anga: anga means limb. Six limbs of the Veda are six auxiliary introductions to the study of the Veda. This work of writing separate textbooks on the Vedangas, as they are called, became necessary on account of emphasis specially laid on either the Samhita or the Brahmana. The phonetics or the pronunciation aspect of the Veda Samhitas was taken up for detailed consideration in a science called Siksha. Panini wrote this text called Siksha, on how to pronounce the Veda Samhita. Any wrong pronunciation will bring a wrong meaning, and a wrong consequence will follow. So Siksha, as a science of intonation and phonetics, was developed as one of the angas or limbs of the Vedas.

The grammar of the language also was very difficult. The Vedas are written in Sanskrit, but it is an archaic, old type of Sanskrit, not the modern classical Sanskrit of Kalidasa, etc. Therefore, it became necessary to write grammar, and this work also was of Panini only, who wrote Siksha. We are told that there are nine grammars that stand, but the most prominent one is Panini’s grammar, which is studied everywhere in schools and colleges these days.

So the science of phonetics and chanting is one, and the science of understanding the grammatical meaning of the words of the Veda, called Vyakarana, was another. Vyakarana is grammar. The third limb of the Veda is Chandas, or metre. The lines of a poem are set in a definite number of words, and you will be surprised that in those most ancient of days, thousands of years before Christ, the composers of the Veda mantras could present the whole Samhita in poetic form with systematic arrangement of words in various regular metres. The Veda Samhita is not written in one metre only; different sections are in different metres. What is this metre? What is the effect produced by the recitation of a mantra in a given metre? That study also became one of the limbs of the Veda. It is called Chandas. Chandas is metre. Then comes the etymology of the words of the Vedas. Indra. What is this Indra? From where did this word arise? What is the root of this word? Every word of the Veda had a root from which it arose, and the study of the roots of the words of the Veda mantras became another limb called Nirukta. Nirukta is the study of the etymology of the words of the Veda. So we have Siksha, Vyakarana, Chandas, Nirukta.

Now, emphasis being laid on the Brahmana portion of the Vedas, the ritualistic side of the Vedas, it became necessary for the performers of these rituals, or yajnas as they are called, to commence the performance at a particular time of the day as decided by the movement of the stars in the heavens. How the planets and the stars influence everything in this world is the science of astronomy, on which astrology also is based. So a new science was developed called astronomy, which is Jyotisha. Jyotish Shastra is astronomical science. That also is a limb of the Veda, as it is important to know at what particular stellar or planetary conjunction it would be necessary to commence a yajna or sacrifice. At auspicious moments only you start things, but how do you know which is the auspicious moment? For this you have to know the movement of the planets and the stars, which is astronomical science, Jyotish Shastra. So we have Siksha, Vyakarana, Chandas, Nirukta, and Jyotisha.

Now comes the sixth limb. There are six limbs in total. It is called Kalpa Sutra. Kalpa Sutras are short aphoristic texts which deal with the details of the actual performance of the sacrifice. How do you start the sacrifice? What are the things necessary? How are they kept in proper order? Which is to be done first? Which is to be done afterwards? Which is the conclusion? What is the manner of the procedure of the whole sacrificial act which will go on for hours, sometimes for days together? The entire detail of the appurtenances of the performance of sacrifice is in the Kalpa Sutras.

Incidentally, these Sutras have certain subdivisions. Srautasutra is one part of the Kalpa Sutras, which deals with only those sacrifices which are connected with the Brahmana portion of the Veda. The other section is Sulbasutra, which details the measurement of the articles that are used in the sacrifice. Suppose there is dharba grass, what should be the length of it; and if there is a vessel, what type of vessel should be used? These are some of the details which we have in the Sulbasutra. Then we have the Grihyasutra, sutras which detail the minor rituals that a person performs in one’s own house – not a huge sacrifice with a lot of people, etc. Every householder has a little puja, a little ritual, a little time allotted for worship. The miniature worships and havans, etc., which a grihastha or a householder does in one’s own house are detailed in the Grihyasutra. Grihya means connected with the house, so it is a Sutra connected with the performances in the house. Then the other aspect of the Kalpa Sutra is the Dharmasutra: what is to be done and what is not to be done, what is proper and what is not proper. This has to be done and this should not be done. The dos and don’ts of performance regulating the ritual of every kind we have in the Dharmasutras.

So I have mentioned something very important about the Veda Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads, and the Vedangas, which are six. I will confuse you a little more by mentioning an additional item of these four Vedas. There are auxiliary Vedas which are called Upavedas. Vedas are four, Vedangas are six, and the auxiliary Vedas, called Upavedas, are four. These four are Ayurveda, Dhanur Veda, Gandharva Veda and Artha Shastra.

Somehow or other the science of healthy living, called Ayurveda Shastra, has been connected with the Rigveda, perhaps because the Rigveda Samhita has much to say about the science of right living. So the Ayurveda Shastra developed from the Rigveda. From the Yajurveda the military science, the Dhanur Shastra, arose. In those days archery was the primary way of military science. Nowadays we have got all kinds of other things. In those days there was archery – bows and arrows. Everywhere in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata we will find bows and arrows. The military science of discharging arrows with bows, called Dhanurveda, is connected with the Yajurveda. The Samaveda is sung musically, and so it is connected with musical science – Gandharveda it is called. And political science and the art of government are connected with the last of the Vedas, namely the Atharvaveda. The four Vedas have four auxiliary Vedas, namely, Ayurveda, Dhanur Veda, Gandharva Veda and Artha Shastra.

So to repeat once again for your memory, Vedas are four: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda; and each Veda has four sections: Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishad; and the Vedas in toto have six limbs: Siksha, Vyakarana, Chandas, Nirukta, Jyotisha, and Kalpa. Kalpa Sutras have four sections: Srautasutras, Sulbasutras, Grihyasutras, Dharmasutras. There are four Upavedas or subsidiary Vedas: Ayurveda, Dhanur Veda, Gandharva Veda and Artha Shastra, which also includes economic science. So this is a huge body of learning which is all embedded in the Vedas.

Many of you would not even have dreamt that the Veda contained so many things. You simply know some chanting of a pundit. Some mantra he recites, and this is all the Veda; it is a prayer to some god. This is all you must have learnt in history books, but it is not so. History books will never tell you all these details. Sometimes wrong things are also told because many of the historians are not well equipped with this knowledge.

On this is based India’s culture. How broad-based is India’s culture you can know from this little introduction. But the human mind, being what it is, could not always suddenly accommodate within its capacity all this knowledge. All this is too much for a human brain. The brain will get tired even by hearing the names of these variegated texts and ways of thinking. As days pass, history has shown that the human mind becomes more and more diluted in its capacity to comprehend. Our intellectual power gets diminished, as it were, as ages pass. Intuition gives way to pure intellection, scientific observation and experiment. Direct apprehension, which was the foundation of the Veda mantras, is completely obliterated from the modern mind especially, which is very busy with technology, material science, socialistic living, and all kinds of appurtenances connected with externally oriented life.

So what is to be done when the mind of the human being is unable to carry on with this integrated knowledge? Emphasis has to be laid on section-wise learning only, as we have today in schools and colleges. Everything cannot be studied in a college. You take up only one or two subjects. As you go further in studies, it becomes only one subject in postgraduate. If a person is specialised in physics, he knows nothing of history. If a person is specialised in history, he knows nothing of other subjects. Compartmentalised specialisation started later on due to paucity of time, shortage of the duration of life of the human being, and difficulty in comprehending many things at the same time – problems and problems, and everywhere difficulties.

Then specialisation started. While during the time of the Vedas, I should say, there was no specialisation in a particular branch only, and it was necessary to acquire all-round knowledge in all aspects of the Vedas, time showed that this was not possible; therefore, people would take up only one side, one aspect. So some sections of people emphasised only the chanting of the mantras. Today we have got pundits who know the Vedas, but they know only the chanting of it. Somebody will say, “Here is a pundit who knows the Vedas.” What does he know? He can recite the Vedas by rote. Like a parrot he will go on chanting it. But ask him, “What is it that you are chanting?” He will not know the meaning of it. The meaning of what he chants, the pundit does not know. It is a parrot-like chanting that he does, but still they consider it as a great achievement. For instance, if the whole of the Rigveda is learnt by heart by some pundit and he can recite it from beginning to end, ten thousand verses at one stroke, he is considered as a very sacred person, a very holy man. He is worshipped in the village and town like a Godman almost. But he knows only the chanting, and nothing else does he know. He cannot do any havan, homa, yajna or anything; that is a different thing for him. He knows neither the ritualistic side of it, nor the meaning. You may wonder why a man should be respected so much merely because he chants the mantras. That also is very important to know.

The mantras are an electric force. The recitation of a Veda mantra – even a mere recitation, not the going into the meaning of it, etc. – charges your personality with a power because of the fact that the arrangement of the words of the mantra in the Veda is such that it creates a vibration. Every word is a sound potential. By ‘sound potential’ I mean a packet of energy or a hidden power in each word which releases itself into action when it is chanted, uttered, pronounced correctly. A correct intonation and a pronunciation of a particular word creates a sudden stimulus inside you and energises your personality as if you are charged with a little electric current; and the sanctity of the Veda mantra because of its inclusiveness, because of the divinity hidden in it, creates a special effect in the person, in the personality of the individual who recites the mantra itself. So even the mere recitation of the mantra is a great thing, and the person who has such capacity to recite it by heart is worshipped as a holy man, not unnecessarily but very, very necessarily. Even if you recite the mantra without the knowledge of its meaning, it has an effect. That is why these pundits are worshipped and adored.

Specialisation, therefore, took the turn of mere recitation of the mantra on the one hand and, on the other hand, there was specialisation on the ritualistic side. They know all the little details of yajnas, sacrifices, havans, and so on – how to raise an altar for the sacrifice, how a kunda is dug, and what are the other details, etc. These are purohits, as they are called. They are specialised in yajnas, performances, rituals, etc. They may not know the whole of the Veda Samhita by heart, but they know by heart those mantras which are connected with a particular sacrifice. That is the second specialisation. The first specialisation is only chanting. The second is ritualistic specialisation.

The third specialisation is ethical and legalistic. To this we turn our attention now, the specialisation of the ethical and legalistic side of the import of the Vedas, known as the Smritis or the Dharmashastras. All the things that I told you up to this time come within the purview of what is known as Veda Rashi – Sruti, to put it briefly. Now, the second specialisation is Smriti, ‘the remembered’. Smriti means ‘that which is remembered’. In Sruti, it is only heard from the Guru by the disciple, whereas in Smriti it is remembered in the sense of how it has to be actually employed in the performance or the conduct of one’s own life.

The conduct or the behaviour that is required of us, the ethical mandate, is the subject of the Smritis. The greatest of all the Smritis is the Manusmriti, and all the other Smritis follow the line taken by Manu. There are eighteen Smritis. We need not go into the details of all these. Eighteen Rishis wrote eighteen books of law and order and ethics, and the conduct and behaviour of people – how in society and in our personal life we have to conduct ourselves. That is the subject of the Smritis. The most important one, as I told you, is the Manusmriti. The next important one is the Yajnavalkya Smriti. The third important one is the Parashara Smriti. Generally only these three are studied.

The Manusmriti is so very strict in its injunctions that it has been found to be difficult to follow in this age where people are weak in mind and will, and in everything. There are four ages of time cycles called Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali: Krita Yuga, the Golden Age; Treta Yuga, the Silver Age; Dvarpara Yuga, the Copper Age; Kali Yuga, the Iron Age. We are now in the Kali Yuga, the Iron Age, not Copper or Bronze or Silver or Gold. In the Golden Age people were able to follow the injunctions of the Manusmriti, which are very strict, and in the Treta Yuga it became difficult, so the Yajnavalkya Smriti was the text for the Treta Yuga. The text of Shankha and Likhita Rishi was for the Dvarpara Yuga, and for the Kali Yuga they say the Parashara Smriti is the only one that can be followed.

Now, what do these Smritis tell us? The way of conduct and behaviour and the maintenance of a general outlook of life is the subject of these Smritis. The aims of existence, the purpose of life, is the first and foremost of issues discussed in the Smritis. What for are you existing in this world? What are your aims and objects? What is it that you are doing from morning to evening every day, and for what purpose? You will find that all your aims are capable of being condensed into three or four issues. Number one: you work very hard for material comforts. You want salary, you want money, you want physical security, you want a house, you want clothing, you want food. These are the material needs of a person. These material needs are called artha in Sanskrit.

You have got a lot of money, you have got a bungalow, you have got nice food to eat, all physical security is there, but nobody recognises your existence at all. Nobody talks to you. You have no friendship with any person. You feel very barren in your emotions. It is not enough if you merely eat and have a comfortable physical existence; you also require affection and love from people. If that is removed, your food cannot be digested and your life will be dreary, a waste. You will feel you are living in a desert. Emotional needs also are important. Aesthetics, the love of art, architecture, culture, painting and drawing, music and dance, and literature are all avenues of the expression of emotions, feelings. Don’t you think that your feelings are important? Is it enough if you merely eat good food and have a good house but your feelings are drying up? Emotions have to be also fed in the same way as your stomach has to be fed. You require affection and love. Perhaps it is a greater requirement than food and shelter, etc. You may starve without food for some days, but you cannot allow affection to be starved. You expect recognition, and it is not given to you. You die by the very thought that you will not be recognised. You will not eat at all for days together because of sorrow: “I am not recognised, I am not promoted, I am not considered, I am a nobody.” The feeling that you are a nobody and you have no affection from anyone will dry up your personality much more quickly than not eating food for days together.

Artha is material requirement, and kama is emotional requirement. Married people generally try to make good the lacuna that one may feel in the absence of affection and love, though love and affection are not limited merely to married life. It does not mean that if the husband loves the wife, and the wife loves the husband, that is everything. Though that is an important thing, there is much more than this in kama. You require to be loved by society, the public. People in general should recognise you. Would you like the whole society to pooh-pooh you though you are living a family life with a husband-wife relationship? Social recognition and status is also a part of the requirement of feeling and emotion, apart from a good family life. All this is included within the requirement of what is known as kama, apart from artha, or material requirement.

Now, you must remember that you are permitted to have physical comforts and emotional needs also, under one condition: that you should not interfere with other people who also require the same needs. You should not say that you want everything for yourself. The regulating principle which restricts your asking for artha and kama is called dharma. You want freedom, but your freedom is limited by the necessity for freedom for other people also. If two people require freedom, none of them can have one hundred percent freedom because if each one wants one hundred percent freedom, there will be two one hundred percents, and that cannot be. Two infinities cannot be there. Inasmuch as every person has a need of the same kind and everyone wants to be free, it is necessary to put a limit on the freedom of each person. That regulative principle which limits your freedom and ordains how you have to conduct yourself in society, together with the sanction that you can have artha and kama, is dharma, law and order. Artha, kama, dharma are the relative values of life.

But they are relative; that is very important. Why are they relative? Because they are not absolute. These things cannot satisfy you eternally, though they may be there with you. Now, inasmuch as they are relative, naturally there must be something which is absolute, in comparison with which we are relative. The last one, the fourth, which is the absolute requirement, is moksha, or absolute liberation. You do not require conditioned freedom. In society you have only limited, conditioned freedom, but you want absolute freedom. In society, in the world, absolute freedom is not possible because of the existence of other people. How will you have absolute freedom? That subject we shall see another time.