Walk Through The Vedas

Indian Mythology 22 Comments

Published in First City, Feb 2010

The Hindu way of life is rooted in what is called Vedic truths. It has a long history and has contributed greatly to Indian thought.

In the beginning there were sets of chants or mantras. Compiled, they were known as samhitas or collections. The earliest of these collections was known as the Rig Samhita. The wisdom they contained was known as veda or knowledge. Later other collections came into being, such as Yajur and Sama and Atharva, containing in varying proportions the hymns of the Rig Samhita.

The mantras were used in two ways. They were chanted during magical rituals known as yagna that played a key role in society. Manuals that explained how these rituals had to be conducted were known as the brahmanas, so called because the rituals helped invoke the brahman, or the great mysterious force that animates the cosmos. The keepers of these manuals and performers of these rituals came to be known (you guessed it!) as Brahmins. Another set of people saw the mantras rather differently. They felt that the hymns had to be heard and contemplated upon. Contemplation would reveal metaphysical truths about the cosmos.

The ritualistic approach was known as karma kanda while the intellectual approach was known as gyan kanda. Later the former ritualistic path would come to be known as the purva mimansa, meaning early investigations, and the latter intellectual approach would come to be known as uttara mimansa, meaning later investigations. The intellectual approach led to compilation of texts known as aranyaka or the forest-texts, indicating that those who celebrated this approach were hermits, very different in character from Brahmins who lived and thrived within society. Many believe that the forest-texts were written by kings and warriors who rejected the ritualistic Brahmins. These aranyakas were compiled and are now known as the Upanishads, dialogues and discussions on the nature of reality. King Janaka is supposed to have called a great conference where these ideas were discussed. The ideas that were discussed were so profound that it was concluded they marked the acme of Vedic wisdom or vedanta.

Who were the Rishis then? They were the poet-sages closely associated with Vedic wisdom. Were they the city-dwellers or were they the forest-dwellers? One is not clear. In mythology, they are both performers of yagna as well as performers of tapasya. Yagna was an external ritual while tapasya was a spiritual practice that involved withdrawing from the material world and involved contemplation, concentration and meditation. Some people classify the forest-dwellers further. There were the alchemists or tantriks and the analysts or yogis. Tantriks appreciated the material world as power or shakti, that could – through various practices –  be manipulated at will. Yogis saw the material world as a delusion or maya. Through analysis (samkhya) and synthesis (yoga) of hymns as well as experience, they looked beyond the material world and experienced spiritual reality.

As time passed, society found it difficult to relate to the ritualistic Brahmin or the forest-dwelling hermits, with their esoteric practices and highbrow philosophy. They turned to the simple ways propagated by the monk-teachers or shramanas. They brought the wisdom of the forest-ascetics to the masses. While the Brahmins said that all problems can be solved through ritual, the shramanas said that all problems were creations of the mind. The method of solving them was austerity and meditation. The path of austerity was propagated by monk-teachers of the Jain faith. The path of meditation was propagated by monk-teachers of the Buddhist faith. This happened around 500 BCE (Before Common Era, formerly known as BC).

Brahmins soon realized that they were losing ground to Buddhism and Jainism. They had to redefine themselves and reach out to the common man. The Vedic truths could not remain in an elitist framework restricted to priests and philosophers. It had to reach the masses. And the method for this was stories.

Stories were always part of ritual tradition. Stories were told to entertain priests and kings who performed yagna. But gradually stories became the vehicle of Vedic truths, so much so, that an act of listening to the story was equated to the yagna. In stories, the most profound Vedic thought was captured symbolically and narratively. The religion that spread through stories is often differentiated from the religion that existed prior to the arrival of shramanas. The pre-Buddhist religion is called Vedism to distinguish it from the post-Buddhist religion now known as Hinduism.

Hinduism spread through stories. And stories propagated three ideas –karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and gyan yoga. Karma yoga or the path of action was different from the earlier karma kanda. Earlier action was all about conducting rituals; but later, action was all about performing social duties and obligations. Stories basically celebrated the householder’s life over the hermit’s. Bhakti yoga or the path of devotion gave form to the ancient Vedic notion of brahman, the impersonal divine force invoked during the yagna. This gave rise to the idea of God. Through stories, people were encouraged to have an emotional relationship with God. Gyan yoga or the path of introspection gave an intellectual foundation to karma yoga and bhakti yoga. It was propagated by teachers or acharyas such as Shankara, Abhinavagupta, Ramanuja, Madhava and Vallabha. This was essentially Vedic wisdom, or what is now called Vedanta.

The Brahmins realized that ritual played an important role in binding communities. So rituals were not completely abandoned. They were enmeshed with stories. Stories invariably revolved around an image or a holy site. Newer rituals emerged, simpler rituals, that took the place of the earlier yagna. Thus began the practice of visiting holy places, taking dips in holy rivers and pools and most importantly going and looking at sacred images housed in temples. The act of darshan or looking at a sacred image was, like hearing a story, equated to getting in touch with Vedic truths. The ritual of puja replaced the ritual of yagna. Offerings were now made to images, recognizable anthropomorphic images, and not just fire. Through puja, divinity could be evoked in an otherwise inert object. Thus grand temple complexes were built around rocks, stone and metal images that were transformed into transmitters of divine energy through rituals and chants. Puja could also enhance the personal relationship of man and the divine. And so alongside temples outside the house, people were encouraged to have temples inside the house. God became a living entity who could be simultaneously housed in the village temple and the household temple and be taken care of like a guest with food, clothing and gifts. Unlike Vedic gods who were distant, reachable only through yagna, the later Hindu gods were very accessible, made tangible through stories and pujas.

This transformation from the ritual through the intellectual to the emotional ensured the survival of Vedic truths in India over 3000 years. There was a time when there was a wide gap between the ritual-texts and the forest-texts. A similar gap is emerging today. On one side are the stories, the rituals and the fantastic images of Hinduism. On the other side are the philosophies gleaned out of Vedic texts. Not many are able to see the connection between the two. Reconnecting them is the need of the hour.

  • Dear sir,

    It is a classical narration. Thanks



  • Dhruv Mehta

    I had taken a course on Hinduism, and there were some discussions on rta(Cosmic order). Can you please tell me when did that notion came to existence, and what other belief preceded that. Thank You.


    • kosru

      the cosmic order explained by hinduism is scientifically true including time period. whereas the the astronomy explained by modern astronomers are totally wrong. the modern astronomers even don’t know the secret behind the creation of sun, earth and other planets.

      • Dhaval

        Its should’nt be Hindu(ism), Rather Hindutva. Ism – is the school of thoughts and religion is the way of life. Hindutva is not only the school of thoughts but it is the way of life.

        Please correct me if I’m wrong.

        • Devdutt

          Please please please do not let politicians decide your language…be careful…they are interested in power, not wisdom

  • shashidhar

    really nice article sir..
    I wanted to know that how do you know all these things/ideas/concepts which are so very much old and discarded by many.. How do you find texts explaining these kind of things?

    keep up the good work sir..


  • Hi and Namaste,
    In the era of ‘centralisation’, the Right hand(thinking/logical) does not know what the Left hand (emotional/feeling) does.Yes, we need to reconnect these two opposites in a NAMASTE !

  • KB

    Dear Devdutt,

    I have been following you on CNBC as well as your website and am just fascinated by the ease and simplicity with which you can connect the ancient and the contemporary.

    You’ve mentioned in this article that karma yoga (as distinct from the earlier karma kanda) as a concept came into circulation with the post-Buddhism avatar of Hinduism. Therefore, the Bhagvad Gita, which first propounded the concept of the three yogas and predates Buddhism by ~4000 years, must have passed into oblivion for a really long time. How did it survive? How did it get revived? Any thoughts?

    • Devdutt

      Based on linguistic studies, the Mahabharata was written between 300 BCE and 300 CE (post Mauryan period / pre Gupta period) and the Bhagavad Gita was incorporated after that. However the ‘idea’ of both the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita is older. No one knows when. One can only speculate.

      • Rohit

        So Bhagwad Gita is not part of Mahabharat?

        • Uday Vemuri

          The traditional view is that Kaliyuga started from 3102BC and this view therefore suggests that Mahabharata happened a few years before the start of Kaliyuga. The tradition view is that Shankara took out the Gita from the Mahabharata and made this into an independent book owing to its greatness. Some of the Puranas accordingly date Buddha to around 1500-1800BC and as per tradition, Shankara was alive around 500BC (not 700AD).

          The modern linguistic view is that Vedas were written in 1500BC and therefore logically the Upanishads follow later around 1000BC and the epics b/w 300BC to 200AD. The major clue upon which dating has been based by the modernists is by relating the word Sandrocottus used by greeks who visted India around 300BC to Chandragupta Maurya. If this premises is wrong, many other dates used by modernists will become topsy turvy. Nevertheless, there are sensible arguments on this side also.

          Both views can be proved as well as disproved. Edwin Bryant has captured the challenges in both views rather well in his books (see Amazon for the titles). Unfortunately, to talk about these aspects are termed as “Politics” in modern India and it is therefore regarded as better to accept the viewpoint of the modernists rather than quote anything else.

          Overall therefore, both views need not be taken seriously. Both are speculations or hypothesis. What should bother us is not whether Gita is part of Mahabharata or created later as a patch up job. I guess what is better is to understand the ideas and messages behind these texts and live life as per these texts if we are able to connect with the messages. In that respect, Devduttjee is doing a phenomenal job in bringing this ideas in modern language to us and we must therefore focus on the ideas behind these texts rather than their dates.

          This of course is an humble personal view.

  • Rohit

    the use of word magic ritual to describe yagy is terrible

  • Madhu

    Dear Devduttji

    Namasthe ! Thank you very much for writing such a great article ” Walk through the Vedas “. I agree with you, as Hindus, not many are able to connect the ancient Hinduism (vedic) and the modern day hinduism. Thats why God has created people like you to enlighten people through your articles. Great work.

  • sanjana

    NAMASTE,read ur article today(05-09-2010) in Speaking tree and was drawn towards this site.there has been this doubt in my mind since long…. can women recite Vedas?why are all Mantras or all teachings made to Purshas? does this mean ‘man’ only or human? i console my self at times that;God can not be partial…..it is the sage(purush)who has been biased while giving the knowledge words. please do enlighten me with your so clear vision . THANK YOU

    • Devdutt

      Purush means human, not man, in sacred scripture…..and why men have written most scriptures? good old patriarchy, I guess.

      • sanjana

        Thanks Sir, Namaste,
        Is reciting the LAGHU RUDRI or any part of the Vedas, objectionable? Many Pandits tell that woman should not study Vedas ,Gyatri mantra, Sri -sukta……..etc is that right?

      • Praveen Kumar

        Namaste Devdutt,

        I like your approach and also the the effect that people get inquisitive of their good old treasure of knowledge.

        Regarding explanation about “Purusha”: The Sanskrit dictionary cleary says that Purusha is Man. or a Male human being.

        My understanding of the Author of VEDA is they are Apaurusheyaha. Meaning these are not written by Human. OR there is an another statement about VEDA’s Author. “Brahma mukhotpannaha Vedaha” meaning they were uttered by the Brahman (please do not misunderstand Brahman with Brahmin) directly.

        In understanding all about VEDAS, there is simple concept missing here. The system belonging to time immemorial.

        Any how comming to Ms. Sanajana’s query: The gender parity is to understood clearly. It is mere ignorance of the people who think Gayatri mantra is to be uttered by the Males alone.

        According to Vedic tradition,all those who have Brahmopadesam can chant this Mantra . Comming to Women they have a specail previlage. The man who does this Gayitri, half of it will be always for the women. No Vedic family was unaware of there mantras.

        The sacred thread worn by the Man has two sets in min (six threads in total). One for set for him and the other for his wife. where as Brahmacharis will have only one set(only three threads).

        This is inregardence with Purva mimansa.

        uttering mantras alone will not give liberation but they can give some materialistc advantages.

        For a mumukshu or a seeker of liberation Uttara mimansa offers the solution.

        Comming to Uttara mimansa, which are end parts of Vedas, known as Vedanta. This is the part which gives the KNOWLEDGE of the SELF, “BRAHMA GJANAM”. It will reveal the knowledge “Tat tvam Asi” Thou Art That”.

        This is the fundamental difference comapred to other systems.

        This is the only system which says “Isavasyam Idam Sarvam” meaning “All that here is Isvara alone”.

        This is the reason why, when we touch anything with our feet we feel sorry. Or you cansee it being lived in India, seeing people worshiping animals, mountains, stones, Fundamental elments, humans, starts, planets etc etc.

        For this to understand how you are thw whole, one should study Uttara mimansa.
        For this the main qualification is being a Human.

        Then the person needs to have PUMSATVAM (this is an attitude or mindset but not the gender) Pumsatvam is abstract of PURUSHA.

        To have a crude understanding one can say it is MASCULANITY. It is just the nature of mind which is reffered here.

        My intention is to clear the wrong notion of a subject matter. But never a personal critisism. I apologise if any of my statements might have even given a room for such misunderstanding.

        This System of living is a vast subject, this cannot be completely understood by just reading just Mythology alone.


        • Devdutt

          Point taken : You and I have incomplete knowledge, and that the gap will never be bridged by any human being whether he knows all of Sanskrit or all of mythology

  • Utpal

    Dear Devdutt,
    Tx for your mail. Fipkart still not ok. However will get some of ur books somewhere.

    Like reading your articles.
    Some thought sthat come to my mind:

    1. Who will link the gap between stories, rituals and texts? Is such a work going on? How do we make mankind strong? a strong mind!
    2. Is anybody trying to actually explain god as some supernatural force within whose control and influence , we are just a miniscule part – our world.
    3. Has hinduism tried to tell us how to communicate with the infinite intelligence? or atlest rach some of its low lever energy links?

    keep writing.

  • Padmanabhan R

    This is an excellent article.

  • rijuta

    Hi. Great theme. In context of decoding the ancient sages, the boundaries that came to be drawn between Rishis who performed rituals alone and those who meditated and contemplated profound thought, was a much later fabrication…because in true Vedic thought – yagna and tapasya – which seem rather contrary…are actually one. As is said in the Gita, Yagna is not just a ritual of fire, but is all of life itself, an inward surrender – and this Sacrifice and surrender of oneself, is accomplished through Tapas. The Rishi as a seer was one who Saw and delivered this revelation of Truth through the power of his Tapas. Thus some Rishis also performed Yagnas for seekers, as the ‘intermediary’ between the seeker and divinity, invoking powers through Word. I have stated the above mostly based on my readings of Sri Aurobindo’s translations and essays on the Veda, particularly ‘The Secret of the Veda’ – among the most profound literature ever written on decoding the Veda, to help remove the ignorance and misunderstanding around its rituals, its essence. Perhaps you’ve read his work, and i greatly recommend it. You would definitely enjoy them.

  • ravisundar

    Devdutt, there is an brahmin caste phobic undercurrent in many of your articles. Your version of distant past is just as true as mine or any other. Early kings passed on the throne to competent rather than to progeny, if you go by Mahabharatha. The father to son rule came later, in Mahabharata itself. My version is just that Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra, all started as professional titles. Like if you were to be living then, Devdutt will be called

    a Brahmin, taking or chanting or writing or teaching about doing and being.
    (whatever is your caste as it is called today). As regards,
    Kshatriya, he would then be doing governing or defending the people,
    Vaishya, would be doing producing material things that we need to live, and
    Shudra, the real doer of any physical things for all others.
    All children, would be declared their profession on some kind of ‘graduation day’, possibly by Brahmins.

    I suspect that the kings started this ‘caste’ inheritance out of love for their offspring, may be Brahmins were in cahoots to give ‘moral’ authority. And then they followed sponsoring progeny, which became caste.

    Whatever was the ‘true’ past, what are we doing today? We are anti Brahmin, anti Manu Vadi, pro Yadav, pro Jat, the list goes on. There are caste association formed by all castes. Admit it, we have the worst caste division today than ever there was. And Devdutt, you are reinforcing your bit.