In the first of our four-part series on ancient Hindu Scriptures, we focus on ‘Shruti’ or the Vedas which contain knowledge which has been heard by the ancient seers in their deep meditation. The Vedas are recognised as the oldest and most important Hindu Scriptures.
SHRUTI – THE VEDAS
The word ‘Veda’ comes from the Sanskrit root word ‘vid’ – to know. It means knowledge, in general, but the knowledge in this instance means absolute, intuitive or esoteric knowledge, and not logical knowledge, either rational or empirical. The Vedas are said to be ‘shruti’ which translates to ‘that which is heard’. The idea that this is intended to convey is that there is a ‘revelation’.
Tradition has it that at the beginning of each cycle of creation, Brahma, the Lord of creation, would proclaim the eternal truths contained in the Vedas to the great rishis (divine seers), who would then record these revelations down for posterity. According to the Vishnu Purana, the original Veda, as revealed to the rishis, consisted of 100,000 verses, and had four divisions.
However, these became obscured with the passage of time. So, in the beginning of the Dvapara Age, Sage Krishna Dvaipayana resuscitated the Vedic study, collected all materials and reclassified the work according to the four ancient divisions of Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva.
In order to perpetuate the study of the Vedas in the proper form, he taught them to his four principal disciples – Rig to Paila, Yajur to Vaisampayana, Sama to Jaimini, and Atharva to Sumanta. As he had reclassified the Vedas, he became renowned by the name of Veda Vyasa – the classifier of the Vedas.
Orthodox Hindus consider that the Vedas have no human origin and are not only timeless, but also infallible. The term ‘Veda’ has been applied to this body of literature which has been handed down from time immemorial by verbal transmission and is declared to be sacred knowledge.
Historians are unable to agree when the Vedas were collected in their present form, and while there seems to be a consensus that it must have been no later than 300 BC, several are of the opinion that 500 BC would be more accurate. When the actual contents were written is impossible to trace, but the oldest material is considered to exist in verbal form prior to 3000 BC.
The very antiquity of the Vedas makes them excellent anthropological and historical guides to the society and culture of the peoples of ancient India. But it is for their philosophical content that they are chiefly famous. They are, despite their age, not the folklore of a primitive, animistic tribe, but the work of great minds of a sophisticated society.
Classification and Contents There are four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva – each being further divided into four classes of literary compositions:
• Mantras (Samhita)
The Vedas teach the knowledge of God and lay down work as a means to that knowledge – work in this sense signifying both sacrificial rites and the performance of secular duties. Work, knowledge and devotion are thus the three subjects of the Vedas and there is accordingly such a division: the Mantras and Brahmanas together forming the karma kanda, or the portion relating to work, the Aranyakas the upasana kanda, or the portion pertaining to meditation and devotion, and the Upanishads the jnana kanda, or portion dealing with knowledge.
This division into Mantras, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads is based on the principle of dividing life into ashramas, or stages, each part corresponding with one stage. According to Vedic teachings, man’s life is divided into four stages. First is the brahmacharya, or student’s life, when the pupil receives both religious and secular instruction, the youth is trained in self-control and the virtues of life. The Mantras are meant for him. The next stage is grahastya, or householder’s life. It is important at this time to perform all the domestic rites. The Brahmanas are meant for this stage of life.
At the stage of vanaprastha or retirement, one is no longer required to adhere to ritualism, but is instructed to follow the Aranyaka and engage in symbolic meditation. Finally, one enters the life of renunciation, or sannyasa, in which he is neither bound by work or desire but is dedicated wholly to acquiring the supreme knowledge as contained in the Upanishads.