published in Discover India, 2000)
by Dr. Gautam
Vedic Textual Tradition (C.2000
B.C.-400 A.D.)The modern knowledge of the Indo-Aryan religio-social
culture is based on Vedic literature which were created between c.2000-600
B.C. Thus we understand that Veda the term is broadly used and means no
single literature. However, there are four primary Vedas viz. RIGVEDA,
SAMAVEDA, YAJURVEDA and ATHARVAVEDA. These Vedas are further
discussed in Samhitas, Brhmanas, Upanishads and Aranayakas.
All these at this level may sound Greek to you but has fascinating oral
tradition which will be discussed now.
The word Vid or
"to know" is the Sanskrit root-word of Veda which means
Knowledge. It is said that Vedas are not created by men so it’s Apaurasheya.
But this is very much part of human journey. And it is eternal in
concept and functional in spirit.Vedas are also known as Shruti which
means one hears and then memorized and keep it to their heart and
transmits those verbally the same content to the next generation for
further retention and dissemination. Historian V.D.Mahajan wrote that
"The purity of the Vedic texts was maintained as they were
considered to be sacred, not worthy to be changed by anybody. Moreover
hymns were memorized without being understood and when the people did
not know their meaning, there were lesser chances of their being changed
by substitution of new words or verses"
The Rig Veda is
said to be the oldest of the sacred traditional Indian scriptures
consisting of 1017 or 1028 hymns or Suktas, which have been
further divided 10 chapters or Mandala. The Rig Veda has come
from the word Rik or a verse. Historical dating of Rig Veda is
not possible today. Nevertheless, Rig Veda, gives us an insight into the
social, economical political and religious life of the people of that
period. The concept of creation of Universe to the idea of natural God
emerged from this text for the first time.
Commenting upon Rig Veda
Dr. B.B.Das wrote "In Rig Veda Samhita, we first come across the
ideas of definite Gods, as a normal evolution from the striking
phenomenon of nature. The same Samhitas shows that the development of
the Aryan religion and Philosophy proceeded along two well-marked
directions. On the one hand, we find the ideal of propitiating the
different Gods by means of worship, which led to the religious
sacraments known as Yajna or sacrifice and other was propounding
the essence of philosophy. Furthermore the author asserted that out of
the nature Gods they conceived the idea of the highest spirit.
The next Veda is Samaveda,
which is defined as "Book of Chants" This name was derived
from the word Saman or prayers for singing. Those are meant to be
sung at the time of Soma Sacrifice by a cult of Brahmins called Udgatris.
Samaveda , thus indicate, that Aryans were ‘no merely puritans’
The third Veda is the Yajurveda
which addresses to the worshipping as Yaj means worship. This
book or Veda of ‘sacrificial prayers’, lays down the code and
procedures for the performance of religious rites. In common terms there
are two parts of Yajurveda i.e. Black Yajurveda which
contains the mantras and the White Yajurveda deals with the prose
of worship. Thus we find a systematic code of worship developed in the
The fourth Veda is Atharvaveda,
which deals with danger from evil spirits and prescribed formulae of
magic to control the demons and evil spirits. Scholars say that for long
time this was not acknowledged as Veda as it got different spirit of
address than the Rig Veda but similarity with the essence can be
As we are aware these
Vedas are further analysed in Samhitas, Brahmanas,Upanishads and Aranayaks.
To describe these let us borrow an explanation from the Indologist Sir
G.C.M.Birdwood who wrote that " The Samhita comprises the mantras
or hymns and proverbs. The Brahmanas describe the details of
Vedic ceremonies for guidance of Brahman ( The class of priest ). The Jnana
or Upanishads are the philosophical part. The Aranayaks,
belonging to the forests are intended for Brahmanas in retreat and are
closely connected with Upanishads ".
However there are Upa-Vedas
or Sub-Vedas of four types
Ayurvedas or Science
of Medicine which derived from Rig Veda
The Upaveda or
Science of Music which originated from Samaveda is also known
as Gandharva Upa-Veda.
The Upa-Veda of
Military Science is Dhanur-Veda originated from Yajurveda.
or Science of Mechanics and Architecture originated from
There are Vedangas which
came later will be discussed after conceiving the idea of Upanishads and
its philosophic contents.
The Upanishads (
c.800-500 B.C. )Before we
move forward in our traverse to identify the Vedic Literary sources we
need to understand Upanishads which not only depict the zenith of
knowledge but also shows the cultural growth of Indology.
The term Upanishad
literally means ‘sitting near’. It indicates the concept of Teacher
and Disciple ( who sits near Guru or Teacher to learn ).This is
part of Guru-Sishya parampara. In Indian tradition the secret
doctrines are not for public consumption rather meant for those who seek
for them. Thus the secrets hidden in Vedas are declassified by teacher
to the disciple by ‘sitting near’.
Upanishads were authored
by different sages at different time and Historians place them between
800-500 B.C. There are 108 Upanishads which demystify relations of
Creators and created and propound the basic philosophy. However the
utterance of Upanishads are creations of spiritual-minded people who had
the rare glimpse of the highest truth. Thus in philosophy we find the
process are more intuitive than logical. The objective remained to
satisfy the natural yearnings of the human mind to know the absolute
truth and highest spirit.
Though there are 108
Upanishads but some of the oldest ones are Brihadarnayaka Upanishad,
Chhandogya Upanishads, Taittiriya Upanishad , Aitereya Upanishad,Kena
Upanishad and Kashitaki Upanishad. In this small study discussing
all the Upanishads will not be worthwhile, so we are limiting our
understanding to fathom its basic essence.
Will Durant the famous
philosopher once wrote "To our own day the Upanishads have remained
to India what the New Testament to the Christendom--a noble creed
occasionally practiced and generally referred. Even in Europe and
America, this wishful theosophy has won millions of followers, from
lonely woman and tired men to Schopenhauer and Emerson".
According to Dr.
Winternitz who wrote in History of Indian Literature : "In
fact the whole of the later philosophy of the Indian is rooted in
Upanishads. Their doctrines formed the foundation of Vedanta Sutra
of Badarayana .... The theological philosophical systems of
Sankara and Ramanuja whose adherents at present day are still counted by
fundamental doctrines of Upanishads Dr. V.D. Mahajan explained that the
Universe is the Brahaman and Brahaman is the Atman or soul and
thus spelled God dwells in all beings. German mystic Schopenhauer often
referred the term TAN TWAM ASI which means "That art thou
i.e. the universe and the Brahaman, that art thou thyself, or in other
words: The world exists only in so far as thou, thyself art conscious of
it" quotes Dr. Mahajan.
Upanishad propounds that
the essence of self is Atman or the soul and not the body, mind
or ego. To conceptualize we take one exemplary explanation of the
says ‘Bring hither a fig from there’.
it is Sir’ says the student.
asks ‘Divid it’
divided sir’ says the student
asked ‘What do you see there?’
are three fine seeds Sir’ replies the student.
teacher asks ‘of these please divide one’.
divided Sir’ student says;
asks ‘What do you see there?’
at all Sir’replies the student.
‘Verily’,my dear one,
that finest essence which you do not perceive--verily from the finest
essence this great tree thus arises.Believe me,my dear one,that which is
the finest essence--the whole world has that as in soul. That is reality
that is atman.Tat Twam Asi--that art thou Shwetaketu’.
removed many an enigma about the concept of Atman and Paramatman
the Supreme Soul. These thoughts later on took a definite shape of
philosophy be it in the era of Ramanuja and others.Upanishads propound
its philosophy through many interactive discussions and if one delves
deep into one might perceive what is otherwise unperceivable.
VEDANGAS, DARSHANAS and
SUTRA Era(7TH Century to 2ND Century B.C.)
There are Six Vedangas or
‘Members of the Vedas’composed long after Upa-Vedas.Those are Siksha
or pronunciation: the Chhandas or prosody and verse.The Vedangana
which deals with the grammar part is known as Vyakarana. The
Nirkuta Vedangana is a type of dictionary of obscure words and
phrases occurred in the Vedas.The Jyotisha is a very important
Vedanga which elaborates the Hindu school of Astronomy.Finally Kalpa Vedanga
is a description of religious ceremonies.
There are six schools of
Indian philosophy which are important part of Vedic literature.These are
composed between 6th to 3rd Century B.C. Those are Nyaya
Darsana,Vireseka Darsana,Sankhya Darsana,Yoga Darsana,Purvat Mimansa
Darsana,and Uttar Mimansa Darsana.These Darsanas are given in
the forms of Sutras or aphorisms which are short,definite and
free from doubts.The common ideas one come across are the Purusa,Maya
Jiva etc.Except Purva Mimamnsa all talk about Moksha
or Emancipation through the Chittasuddhi or by purification of
heart.Niskama Karma or no-gain-oriented activity is also
propounded in these Darsanas which will get full treatment in
Sutras are the manual of
instructions and address to the different names. The Sutra literature
encompasses Vedangas,Nirkuta of Yaksa,Ashtadhayai of Panini,Srauta
Sutra,The Griha Sutra and the Dharma Sutras. All
these were created between 7th to 2nd century. The Ashtadhayai of
Panini is a book of Sanskrit grammar. Srauta Sutra gives the
details of ceremonies to be practiced by priests. The Griha Sutras
deal with domestic sacrifices and rites to be performed by the
householders. The Dharma Sutras refer to the customary law and
The Epic Era and
Dharmashastra Ramayana and Mahabharata are the two epics which are not
only revered by Hindus but open a panoramic scenario of the then world
though with a touch of mythology.The Ramayana is the oldest epic and
most popular amongst Hindus is said to be written by the sage Valmiki.
It contains seven books and 2400 couplets. Mahabharata consists of 18
books and there are about one lakh couplets. It’s author is Vyas Muni.
Historian Dr R.C.
Majumdar describe Ramayana as the expansion of Aryan culture over the
deccan and deep south India. It also pays an indirect tribute to the
high state of material and moral culture of the non-Aryans.This is the
foundation of Hindu way of life where the opponents are measured and
revered. Dr.Majumdar wrote:
‘The first and the
last book of Ramayana are later additions. The bulk,consisting of
Books II-VI,represents Rama as an ideal here. In Book I and
VII,however, Rama is made an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu,and the
epic poem is transformed into a Vaishnava text.
The reference to the
Greeks,Parthians,and Sakas show that these books cannot be earlier than
the second century B.C. It is interesting to note that Ramayana story
was known to Mahabharata people. Thus Ramayana remains the oldest of the
Without going into the
details of the two epics let us delve into its essence. Apart from the
story-line in the two epics we find a new theory which was yet not
talked about in the earlier Vedic literature. In Ramayana for the first
time the philosophy of Vishnu incarnation as Rama got currency.
Moreover, Ramayana for the first time coins different Hindu pantheons
which in course of time gave birth to many a belief system within the
macro-Hinduism which envelops all castes and creeds in the pan Indian
concept. Ramayana is one hand propagates the concept of Vishnu in the
fold of incarnations and on the other hand praises the Shaivite
philosophy and even praises Ravana on many occasion be on the count of
morality or strength. Thus the seed of even praising the enemy got
planted and the harmony became the key word for Hindu way of life.
In Mahabharata, one can
see how it thematically deals with socio-political life of the people of
that time which introduced many rituals and codes for Hindu way of life.
Bhagavat Gita is also an integral part of Mahabharata where Lord Krishna
(again reincarnation of Vishnu) advised and taught Arjuna about the
life,mortality and reincarnation with a semblance of the theo-philosophical
treatment is of great veneration among the Hindus. In Gita Lord Krishna
unfurled the mystery of the world and enlightened Arjuna about the basic
concept of Dharma and Karma and the essence of godhood within. This was
the discourse of Bhagavata Gita,which till date not surpassed by any
literary work. Finally,Pandavas won the 18 days Kurukshetra war and
defeated the Kauravas.Through this war, justice was delivered to the
Thus the epic revolves at
the symbolic levels and often metaphors were used to subtly introduce
the philosophy empatterened in the earlier Vedic literature. So epics
have given us some understanding of Vedic traditions and its later
manifestation. At this point we need to gauge Dharmashastras which
opened up a new vista to understand the functional Hinduism created in
the last phase of B.C. though exact dating is not possible today.
Those Shastras are Manu
Smriti, Yajanavalkya,Narada,Brahaspati and Vishnu Smritis. And another
important book which ruled the era was Kautilya’s Arthashastra. As we
are aware that Hinduism is no mere ecclesiastical idea rather it
encompasses the process and methods of human life covering
administration to law from religious duties to the system of justice
Manu Smriti is most
expounding of Dharmashastras. Manu Smiriti for the first time pave a
very clear concept of laws under 18 heads. Those are laws concerning
living and lifestyle be it non-payment of wages to the idea of adultery
and to the gambling. Manu discussed the punishments in order of
severity. Many dealt with civil laws,administrative justice to the
observance of religious codes. On the otherhand,Kautilya described Dharma
(sacred law) Vyavahara (contract) Charita(custom) and Rajasasana
(royal decree) as four legs of law.
The concept of Varnaashram
or stages and regulations of life is discussed in Manu Smriti. There
are four stages namely Brahamacharya(student life); Grihasharam(life
in family); Vanashram (the fag end of family life), and Sanyas--the
life of ascetic. Thus Manu Smiriti provides an insight into the then
On the otherhand, Narada
Smirit gave further interpretation and added few modifications of
Manu’s prescriptions. Those are regarding remarriage of
women,regulation of gambling,and talked about the law of inheritance
systematise the concept of law and segregated its address and all
through refers to the Vedas, Vedangas and fourteen Vidyas. It also refers
to the monasteries of Brahmana, Purana, Dharma Shastras etc. It
gave pulse of the practices like Sati Pratha or the rule of for
business, concept of partnership to the coins etc. Likewise we see in the
era of Dharma Shastra there was a definite development on the
score of creating specific rules for the society to sustain and develop.
The era beginning from
the 4th century A.D. gave a definitive direction to the history of
religion in India. In the era we find Brahminical flexing its
comprehension to incorporate the Bhagavatism in a synthetic
manner, and perhaps in the era heterodox and orthodox got intermixed in
unity for which numeral Puranas played its role. As we have noticed with
the advent of Bhagavatism, there was a concept of systematization
which got a definite shape in the Pauranic era especially in the older
Puranas like Vayu Purana, Vishnu Purana, Matsya Puranas, Markandeya
Purana,Bhagavat and Brahmanada Puranas completed the two
theistic belief system mainly and those are Vaishnavism and
Saivism. However,towards the creation of the third major belief system
i.e. Saktism, Puranas played very important role.
literature traveled through various punctuation of text and its
interpretative level. The process of understanding the encoded mysticism
of Vedic era however still haunt all the Indian endeavour of thought and
action of creative level.