The Vedas —Backbone of Our Culture
by: Swami (Dr.) Satya Prakash Saraswati (1905-1995)
The Vedas constitute the back-bone of our entire culture and development through the millennia not only in India but also abroad. For most of us, they constitute the first literature that dawned on us at the earliest time of man's appearance on this globe. In India, we regard them as the revealed knowledge. What the effulgent sun is to animate and inanimate activity on the terrestrial earth, the Vedic enlightenment is to the prestigious life of man on this planet for the majority of humanity. Man with his most highly evolved physico-psychic complex is a gem in our divine creation, much above the animal level. For his fulfillment, the necessary code of conduct is incorporated in the Vedic texts. It is the most precious gift to humanity from our benign Creator and Lord.
Origin of Language
We are told that the divine revelation came to man at a time when the world was in its infancy. I shall not take you to primitive man and his group as conceived by an evolutionist of the modern age – a society which was least conducive for the type of revelation we received from the divine source. Undoubtedly, the primitive and mentally unevolved man could have been least receptive to the highest type of enlightenment. I shall not refer you to the history or the geography of the event of revelation, for the time-space reckoning must have started very long ago in our history. I am talking of days when man had no language, though he had a complete set of vocal and hearing organs. Think of the days when man had existed without a vocabulary; he had not yet called the sun the sun, the moon the moon, and the earth the earth. How surprising it was that he was flourishing in surroundings to which he had not yet given names. He was moving, sitting, sleeping, eating and drinking but he had no terminology for these functions. His gesture had no words. He was enjoying colorful Nature; he had no terms for white, red, pink, blue, green or black. In the midst of such a state of affairs now inconceivable, the divine knowledge was revealed to him through exceptional personalities with high receptivity, stupendous memory and superb understanding. The earliest contribution of men of this group was to assign names to the objects of surroundings in the most general terms. The language of the divine Rigveda itself has an astonishing stock of about 35,000 words in 10,000 verses with immense intrinsic potentiality for coining new terms. With the revealed Vedas starts the concept of human language in terms of which man not only talked with contemporary man, but also continued his link with posterity. Without having an instinct to communicate to posterity, man could not have made any history, culture, philosophy, science and technology. This communication could have been possible only through a language, as divine as Creation. Philosophy or science assumes the pre-existence of orderliness in Creation, the Rita, another name for eternal consistency. According to a theistic concept, there is a concomitant relationship between the Veda, Creation and science. A theist is one who submits or surrenders himself to the Divine Creator, the Divine Language (WORD) and the Divine Creation – the three realities.
Thousands of years have passed since the divine knowledge was first revealed to a small group of seers (the four Samhitas to the first four – Agni, Vayu, Aditya and Angiras, so named traditionally). There was another group of seers with stupendous memory, who passed on this knowledge to the successive generations. The art of script and writing was invented and developed at a much later stage.
Phenomenon of Oral Communication
In the British Museum, one may see a written Bible of the third and fourth centuries A.D.; the Holy Quran of thirteen hundred years ago beautifully scribed, but one would rarely find a script of the Veda of such an ancient date. Such an amazing phenomenon of preserving the most ancient texts of 20,000 verses through all the years of history could not have occurred in any other land. The credit goes to the traditional Brahmanas of India who against all hazards of human history could keep the texts so well preserved with the right phonetic accents and accuracy to this day.
Dynamism in the Vedic Period
Man was very dynamic in the Vedic Age when he for the first time domesticated cattle and developed barley, rice and lentils. He with regularity introduced innovations in agriculture. The Rishis of the days of the Yajnas laid the foundations of the earliest physical and life sciences including mathematics and astronomy. The places where these yajnas were performed were known as yajnashalas; they were man's earliest temples of learning, his academies and his open-air laboratories and observatories. There could not have been any limit to man's achievement and his collaborative accomplishments. The Veda stands for the philosophy of dynamic realism, against that of static mysticism.
Knowledge and Theism
It was the Veda that inspired earliest man. In other words, the ancients drew inspiration from God, God's Words and God's Creation. You cannot think of knowledge by eliminating God from His Creation. After all, what is knowledge? What is physics? Or metaphysics? Is it not with reference to our Great Creation? It is just the study of a little activity in the dynamic world in a particular parameter. The world is the source-book of all such studies. In our own body complex, there is something, the study of which is beyond the dimensions of our physics – how does a sense-organ function? How do the vital forces operate and how does the mind work? These questions pertain to that realm of creation which is also as real as the physical realm. Raising questions in their context, the exploring mysteries and finding out the generalities take us to the disciplines of psychology and metaphysics and so, ultimately, it is our creation (ultra-micro, micro and macro) which has to be studied and explored. The Veda takes you even a little beyond this creation. While the Vedic texts present to you a little picture of the mysteries of this creation, they by and by lift you up a little beyond the physical or metaphysical reality. They raise you from creation to the Creator. They take you from the Sun to the Sun that shines behind the Sun, to the Fire that glows behind the mundane fire; they take you to Light that enlightens all the lights familiar to us. They take you to Beauty and Pleasure behind the so called beauty and pleasure that exist in our everyday life. And thus the Veda becomes the source-book of the para vidya (mundane knowledge) and apara vidya both (science of Ultimate Reality). In the lower stages, all the disciplines of knowledge are distinct and separate. What botany is is not physics; what hearing is is not seeing, what knowing is is not feeling but in the apara vidya (the knowledge of the Supreme), all these distinctive disciplines merge into one. The highest knowledge is merely one, the integrated knowledge, and this is the knowledge, not gained through our sense-organs, vital organs or through our mental behaviors. This is the final knowledge that we aspire for. This is then the establishment of a personal link between an aspirant and the Supreme One.
Beauty in Nature
The Vedic verses enable you to enjoy the glory of God in His creation. May you enjoy to the full the charm of the damsel of Dawn a little before sunrise; some of the verses draw your attention to the glory of the rising sun, the vast luminary that enlightens our globe throughout the day. The verses take you to the thrilling evenings and to the calmness of night, cool and refreshing. The sky and the firmament have their own beauty with stars set like pearls and diamonds on a blue background. This is, however, one aspect of Nature's glory. The rays of the sun take away moisture from the surface of oceans; the moisture takes the form of dark clouds which during particular months of the year proceed with high speed thousands of miles at a height of 4,000 to 20,000 feet high in the firmament. Whilst the clouds move, the mid space wind also attains a stupendous velocity. The water particles of the clouds are surcharged with electricity. The result is thunder and lightning. The thunder, lightning and high speed wind, all the three integrate themselves to provide dread to the living beings on the terrestrial globe. For days together, the sun is rendered invisible and is shrouded as if with layers of clouds. And finally the rain falls in torrents, and the sky again becomes clear. Man gets light and warmth both from the mighty sun. The clouds are known as Vrittra in Vedic terminology. More than a dozen names are given to these clouds; they are the demons, they are serpents (ahih);they are the varahas (meaning boars also). The sun is also given dozens of names. The Vedic verses take delight in referring to the eternal conflict between Indra or the sun and the shrouder, the clouds, which obstruct light and warmth of the sun. Ultimately, it is the sun that becomes victorious. But again the story is repeated everywhere. The Divine Poet of the Veda is never tired of narrating this parable; and He takes us to another conflict of the same nature which exists within the interior of all of us – a constant struggle between our divine tendencies and our devilish ones. The incessant conflict between Truth and Non-truth, between Good and Evil, or Enlightenment and Nescience, Knowledge and Ignorance. While the Vedas narrate this parable, their reference to the sun and clouds is merely symbolic. The real conflict which they intend to stress is between the self and the dark forces within our own personal make-up. One one side we have truth, light and immortality and on the other evil, darkness and death.
Theism of the Veda
In the verses of the Vedas, we invoke the Supreme Lord, the Sole Master of Creation and the living beings. Man is also an architect or potter in certain respects, but his creation, his art, his pot exists at a place where he does not stay. But the Supreme Divine as an architect produces everything withinHim, for there is nothing that exists outside Him and He is withinall. For we have in a passage of the Yajur, where there is a reference to the Supreme Reality:
It moves, it moves not. It is far, and it is near, It is within all this, And it is outside all this. (Yajur. 22.5)
In Vedic terminology, by creation we mean a purposeful well-ordained transformation of the unmanifest to the manifest form, from asat to sat. In that sense, all the rich and wonderful creation is within the existence of our Lord (in Time-Space parameters). He is also known as the hiranyagarbha or the Golden Embryo. We have in a Vedic verse:
The Golden Embryo existed prior to all. It was the source of everything that was born. It was the sole Lord of Existence. It maintains or upholds every- thing that exists between earth and heaven. Only to that Lord, and to none else, shall we offer our affection and homage (Rig. 10.121.1; Atharva. 4.2.7)
This Supreme Reality is not merely a philosophical abstract concept; it is a reality which we have to invoke and evoke for our personal becoming or for the fulfillment of our life. In this sense, Vedic Theism is a concept of dynamic reality. The Supreme Reality is our concern every moment. We might ignore Him, and so we usually do, but He does not neglect us. While He is near, He leaves it not; though it is near, it sees Him not. Behold the Art of God, His Poetry that shall not die and shall never grow old. (Atharva. 10.8.32).
God Himself is unmanifest, but He is manifested behind his Divine Art. The effulgence behind His creation is His effulgence; the mighty force behind Nature's force is His force. He is light behind the light, terror behind the terror, the sweetness behind everything that is sweet, and the Supreme Activity behind all activities. We admire His forces, invoke all bounties of Nature, and through Nature, we proceed to the unmanifest Reality, the Supreme Source of Enlightenment and Bliss.
We invoke our Lord in terms of attributes and functions, and we try to establish a personal relationship with Him. In Vedic poetry, the tiny little soul and the Supreme Self are both taken to be two birds (Suparna), mutual friends and companions.
Two birds, which are closely associated and intimate friends, perch on the same tree. Of them One (the lower soul) tastes of its fruits; the other (the Supreme Lord) shines resplendently without tasting (Rig. 1.164.20).
Coupled with a few more verses of the Great Hymn (1.164, 21, 22), one can enter into the depths of the mystic meaning of the intimate relationship of the two birds perching on one and the same fig tree.
The Supreme Reality is known by different names in regard to its functions, attributes and nature. Taken out of the context of its creation and suzerainty over souls, the Reality would have no name other than OM (==A-U-M), the all-comprehensive syllable, embracing the limits of the entire phonetic alphabet with potential creativity, sustenance and dissolution in it (Om Kham Brahma – Yajur.60.17).
The functional and attributive names of the Supreme Reality are numberless. Primarily, they are the names of our Lord; in their narrow connotations, they are the names of Nature's Bounties also – primarily the sun, and secondarily the bounties of mid space and the earth. Society is also a living organism, with its head, its shoulders, its eyes, and its limbs. The same functional terms as are used for the Supreme Reality may be used for offices in an organized society. Again, man, his entire body-complex, is a huge sovereignty by itself with the soul as the supreme ruler, and the sense organs (and the functional organs) as his subordinates.
The seers of the Vedic age not only discovered this fire, they devised the means of controlling and harnessing it. They finally introduced certain elaborate fire-rituals called the yajnas. Apart from small and big fire-rituals, the Vedic Samhitas refer to the cosmic yajna which goes on incessantly in Nature, producing sunshine, clouds, rainfall, vegetation, and completion of Nature's cycles of various types. In analogy to the benevolent and purposeful cosmic yajna,and activity of man, intended to contribute something to society with selfless intentions, came to be known as yajna.The entire 18th chapter of the Yajurveda deals with this type of yajna, contributing to the general human good. Many of the verses end with a refrain yajnena kalpatam. This yajna is not a fire-ritual; it refers to man's dynamic activity to explore and utilize Nature's resources for our common good. Motivated by the spirit of these yajnas, our seers of yore explored the flora and fauna, surveyed organic and inorganic resources, and laid the foundations of a welfare state. The domestication of animals, the science and craft of agriculture, and the utilization of all types of resources for food, clothing and housing were S()me of the earliest undertakings of the Vedic age. These yajnashalas were, in away, the open air academies, laboratories and observatories for the advancement of culture and enlightenment. A concerted, coordinated well-planned effort for human good is yajna.This is a sacred act and hence is technically known as sacrifice, a selfless act.
The Vedic concept of God is perfectly ethical, and hence the Vedic verses uphold high moral values of life. God is Truth personified, Activity personified, Purity personified, Love personified and Bliss personified. We crave to imbibe within us a bit of His qualities. The Vedic Dharma is thus the morality-based Dharma based on truth and its acceptance for life, i.e., faith (Shraddha), austerity (Tapas), pity (Daya) and selfless service and dedication (Yajna), generosity (Dana), peace (Shanti), friendship (Mitrata), fearlessness (Abhaya) and mutual understanding (Saumanasam). Above all, is the essential quality of complete reliance on God (the lone alambana or skambha, the pillar of strength).
The Vedic verses refer to a type of coordinated life. Man is not an individual. He is a social organism. God loves him only who serves other beings: men, cattle and other creatures. His glory lies in being a member of a big family. On the one hand, man is bound by blood-kinship – his parents, his wife, his sons and individual of society, whether near or far from him. It is given to man to link himself with those who constitute his ancestry, and also think of those who would be his posterity. Man thus lives, works- and dies for society. The Vedic verses refer to this dynamism. Man is expected to develop his craft, sciences and technology, and lead society from poverty to prosperity, with a happy today and a happier tomorrow.
[Extract from the preface to the book, THE HOLY VEDAS]
Courtesy: “Aryan Heritage” English monthly, Sept-1992
Presented here: By - Bhavesh Merja