Dr. Gautam Chatterjee  




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(article published in Discover India, 2000)

by Dr. Gautam Chatterjee

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 Yajurveda.

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 found.

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

  1. Ayurvedas or Science of Medicine which derived from Rig Veda

  2. The Upaveda or Science of Music which originated from Samaveda is also known as Gandharva Upa-Veda.

  3. The Upa-Veda of Military Science is Dhanur-Veda originated from Yajurveda.

  4. Sthapatya-Veda 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 millions".

Explaining the 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 thought.

Teacher says ‘Bring hither a fig from there’.

‘Here it is Sir’ says the student.

Teacher asks ‘Divid it’

‘It’s divided sir’ says the student

Teacher asked ‘What do you see there?’

‘There are three fine seeds Sir’ replies the student.

Then teacher asks ‘of these please divide one’.

‘It’s divided Sir’ student says;

Teacher asks ‘What do you see there?’

‘Nothing 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’.

Likewise,Upanishads 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 Bhagavat Gita.



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 practices.

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 two epics’.

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 Pandavas.

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 system.

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 social life.

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 etc.

Yajanavalkya Smriti 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.

Likewise, Vedic 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.

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’.


Copyright © Dr Gautam Chatterjee