Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 6, 2010

First published August 5, 2010

 in First City

Walk Through The Vedas

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.

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