Mathomathis would like to discuss on Vedas and Upanishads in length and detail. The following article was written by Kadambi Srinivasan Published by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams 2019. The following article is a continuation from VEDAS AND UPANISHADS (INTRODUCTION) | 101

Purusha Sukta: – It is the hymn of the cosmic person. It gives a magnificent description of the spiritual unity of the cosmos. It occurs in all Vedas with slight variations of the order of the mantras. This famous hymn acts as a synthesis of several Vedic concepts. The Sukta presents the Reality as both immanent and transcendent. The all encompassing Purusha , who is all heads, all eyes and all limbs, envelops and permeates creation from all sides and clearly stands above it as the glorious immortal (Sahasra sirsa Purusha, Sahasraksa Sahasrapad, Sabhumim visvato vrttva atyatista dasangulam, purusa evedam sarvam). The whole Universe is a small fraction of Him, as it were, for He ranges above it in His infinite glory. The divine personalities have merged in the One Supreme Purusha. The monism of metaphysics finds its transformation as the supreme personality of God of religion. The Purusha is all that was, is and shall be. From Him proceeds the original creative will (later identified with Brahma) by which this vast Universe is projected in space and time.

Nasadiya Sukta: – This is the 129th hymn of the 10th Mandala of the Rig Veda. The Sukta presents the scene that existed prior to the creation. The Supreme Being is above all beings, and its existence is beyond all possible concepts about it. “In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence, no realm, no sky, no air, no earth. There was neither mortality nor immortality. There was neither any form nor name. There was neither day nor night. Darkness concealed darkness. There was, however, just one thing- which breathed breathlessly by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing. Who can tell whence it was born or was it born at all? From It the creation arose. However, no one can give an account as to what happened and how it happened, for creation has not started by then. Everyone, including the Devas, came much later as a result of the creation. This is the central point of the Nasadiya Sukta. This in turn led to the various ramifications of philosophic and religious thought in the Upanishads.

Vedas as the source of development: The Vedas formed the basis for the later development of thought. The philosophic flights made by the Vedas climaxed in the Upanishads. Vedas inspired in the formulation of the school of Yoga which was codified in aphorisms by Patanjali. The visions of creation of the Universe expressed in the Vedas helped in the rise of the Sankya doctrine which regularized prevalent notions on cosmology and psychology. The logical trend found in the Vedas stimulated the development of anvikshiki (application of reason) and the rationalistic bias of certain systems among the Darsanas. The accounts of sages and kings which the Vedas bring out formed the basis for Epics and Puranas. The social rules and customs of the time formed the cornerstones in the systematization of conduct and law in the Dharma Shastras.

Vedas over the years: Veda, which is a Shruti literature, is treated as a supreme and an ultimate authority. The authentic Smriti literature (which we will study a little later) has its basis in the Shruti. Whenever, a difference arises between Shruti and the Smriti, the statement of Shruti is accepted as the final word. From time to time Smriti might undergo modifications, but the Shruti cannot be altered at all. Rig Veda is built around a science of sound, which comprehends the meaning and power of each letter. All the other Vedas are based upon it and consist to a large degree of various hymns from it. Each and every letter in the hymns of the Rig Veda is pronounced in such a way that the exact meaning and power of the letter in it is clear and distinct from others. In Rig Veda the hymns are penned basing on the science of sound in order to make the pronunciation of each letter sound more powerful.

For several centuries, Vedas had to be committed to memory and were passed on orally from generation to generation. Manuscripts were sparingly used as memory aids. In this process, care has to be exercised to prevent errors from creeping in. A fool-proof method was devised. Texts were used for aiding memorization and recitation of Vedas with utmost fidelity. They were called “Lakshana Granthas”. These texts include Padapathas, Ghanapathas, Kramapathas and other Vikrits or modification of the root text, phonetic treatises like Sikshas and Pratisakyas. The modes of chanting prescribe the basics like how much time one has to take for reciting a word, how to regulate breathing while reciting so that required vibrations are produced in the specific parts of the body which will yield pure word-sound.

As a result, several Vedic texts were transmitted over several millennia with utmost fidelity, together with accent. There is another reason for the great care the Rishis have taken for ensuring that the mantras are uttered exactly as they were intended to be. The power of the mantra lies in the manner it is uttered – on the sound and the vibrations it generates. The script cannot convey this. It has to be demonstrated and taught by the teacher to the pupil. Shruti is composed in Vedic Sanskrit and Smritis in laukika Sanskrit. There are some basic differences between these two types of Sanskrit. In Vedic Sanskrit the words have accent, akin to notes in music, and a word’s meaning can change drastically simply by changing the accent of its letters. Therefore these words have to be heard properly from the guru.

The revelation: As mentioned by the author earlier, Vedas represent sublime knowledge revealed by the Supreme Divinity to great Rishis or Seers (Drashtas) during their meditation. However, it is not as if that all of it was revealed to one great Rishi. It is said that they have been revealed to a number of Rishis over a period of time. In the case of Rig Veda, it is believed, that around 400 sages were involved. Importantly, some of them were women sages. The Rig Veda is the only scripture in which the Divine Truths are revealed to women sages and in which hymns describing these revelations, find a prominent place in the Rig Veda Samhita. There are more than 30 women sages in Rig Veda with specific hymns associated with them.

Generally, around ten families have been identified as the original composers. They were – Kanvas, Angirasas, Agastyas, Grtsamadas, Vishvamitras, Atris, Vashishtas, Kashyapas, Bharatas and the Bhrgus. All their work was in one stream and contained 1180 Shakhas (recessions). These sages were men of great intellect and they memorized the entire Vedas before communicating the knowledge orally to their disciples.

During Maharishi Vyasa’s time there were at least 1180 such Shakhas. Each Shakha was maintained and passed on by the Guru to the disciples. The practice of oral communication and the teaching of Vedas continued for many centuries. Towards the end of Dwapara Yuga, it appeared as if the Vedas may even have to face extinction! It was at this point in time that Maharishi Veda Vyasa appeared on the scene. His contribution in the compilation of Vedas is an example of unparalleled erudition. With great perseverance he searched and collected the works of all Rishis on Vedas up to that point in time and categorized all of them. He compiled them into four parts and they, in turn, came to be known as Vedas. The four Vedas are – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. His contribution did not stop with the codification of the Vedas. He further authored 18 Puranas, 18 Upa Puranas, Brahma sutras and the Maha Bharata. He still had time to teach the Vedas, thus divided, to his chief disciples.

Vedas NameName of the disciple
Rig VedaPaila
Yajur VedaVaishampayana
Sama VedaJaimini
Atharvana VedaSumantu

It is said that during every Dwapara yuga of the present Vaivasvata Manvantara, different Vyasas have divided the Vedas twenty-eight times. Their names are given below –

Dwapar YugaVeda VyasaDwapar YugaVeda Vyasa
1Lord Brahma15Trayyarun
10Tridhama24Riksh (Valmiki)

An Overview: In the Hindu tradition, Veda is a single collection of all mantras. Every mantra (verse) is one of the 3 types.

  • Rik – Mantra of illumination in one of the several meters
  • Saman – Mantra with a meter which has to be sung according to the symbols indicated in the mantra.
  • Yajus – mantra in rhythmic prose.

When Veda is referred to as threefold (Trayi) the reference is to these three types. Rig Veda Samhita and Atharva Veda Samhita have only Rik Mantras. The Sama Veda Samhita has only Sama mantras. But the Yajur Veda Mantra Samhita has both Rik and Yajur mantras. Many of the Yajur Veda mantras are found in the Rig Veda Samhita also.

Yajur Veda Samhita has two types of recessions:

  • Krishna (mixed) Yajur Veda Samhita
  • Shukla (pure) Yajur Veda Samhita.

One of the peculiarities of Krishna Yajur Veda Mantra Samhita is – some of its anuvakas contain Brahmana passages in plain prose. It is one of the reasons for this Veda Samhita being referred to as Krishna or mixed (i.e. mixed with Brahmanas). The Shukla Yajur Veda does not contain any Brahmana passages. The mantras in the Yajur Veda Samhita give only the mantras to be chanted on various occasions. It does not give details of the rites to be performed alongside with it. These details are given in books called Brahmana, and Sutra books like Apasthamba. Each Veda Samhita has one or more Brahmana books associated with it. Aitareya Brahmana is associated with the Rig Veda. Taittiriya Brahmana is associated with Krishna Yajur Veda. Shatapatha Brahmana is associated with Shukla Yajur Veda. The Brahmana books are called Brahmana passages.

They are in the form of long prose sentences. Typically each passage will explain:

  • Explanation of the particular mantra in the Samhita book. – from a ritualistic point of view
  • Legends about the Gods
  • Details of the rites, and of oblations to the Gods
  • Details of dakshina to the priest
  • Material benefits that you may expect by the performance of the rites.

It is important to understand the meaning of mantras in the context of Vedas. By mantra we mean either:

  • Rik mantra adhering to a specific meter
  • Yajus mantra being a short rhythmic phrase.

Mantra rises from the innermost depths of the Rishi and is revealed to him. The mantra embodies a deep chunk of knowledge or wisdom. The Brahmana passage, on the other hand, is a lengthy prose passage of 50 to 100 lines with the purpose of giving details on ritualistic explanations. The seers of mantras are Rishis. However, the seers of Brahmanas are only acharyas. This means the Brahmanas may not have been composed by Rishis. For this reason the Brahmana passages have much less authority than the mantras.

Animal Sacrifice: The key concept of Veda is Yajna. Yajna is not a mere ritual. It is a symbol of intense spiritual practice , both at the individual level and also at the collective level The question then arises as to whether “Mantras of Veda Samhitas support the killing of animals as part of the Yajna rites?”. Writings from authorities like Sayana appear to say “yes”. However, more modern intellectuals, like Sir Aurobindo argue on the concept of “Inner Yajna” and sacrifices are more symbolic in nature. In the Vedic tradition Vedas are regarded as the source of all wisdom. These books contain the seed of the doctrine or the philosophical thought which then blossomed into the teachings of the Upanishads. Divisions within Each Veda Each Veda was further divided into four parts. This was done to suit the four stages in a man’s life.

Samhitas: The mantra portion of the Vedas is useful for Brahmacharins.

Rig Veda -Samhita: They are hymns in praise of the Vedic Gods for attaining material prosperity here and happiness hereafter. They are metrical poems addressed to various deities. They are called “RiK”. The priest for the Rig Veda Mantra Samhita is called Hotri. His function is to invoke deities to the sacrifice.

Yajur Veda Samhita: There are two Yajur Vedas. They are (a) Shukla Yajur Veda (b) Krishna Yajur Veda. The Samhitas here are in prose form. They are called “Yajus”. The priest, Adhvaryu, makes use of this. He performs the sacrifice according to strict ritualistic codes and makes offerings to the God.

Sama Veda Samhita: This is mostly borrowed from the Rig Veda Samhita. Sama Veda mantras are called “Saman”. A Sama Vedic priest Udgatri sings it.

Atharva Veda Samhita: Priest titled Brahma uses this. Being well versed in all the Vedas, he supervises and guides the sacrificial rites. The Atharva Veda is comprised of both Riks as well as Yajus.

Brahmanas: Basically they provide a guide to people performing sacrifices. They are prose explanations of the method of using the mantras in a Yagna or sacrifice. The Brahmanas are suitable for householders: –

  • There are two Brahmanas for the Rig-Veda. They are Aitareya and Sankhayana.
  • The Shukla Yajur Veda has Satapatha Brahmana. The Krishna Yajur Veda has two Brahmanas – Taittiriya Brahmana and Maitrayana Brahmana
  • Sama Veda has Tandya or Panchavimsa, the Shadvimsa, the Chandogya, Adbhuta, Arsheya and Upanishad Brahmanas
  • The Atharva Veda has Gopatha Brahmana

Aranyakas: They are intended for Vanaprasthas – people preparing themselves for the last stage of life have retired to the solitude of the forests. For them the physical performance of Yajnas may not be easy. The Aranyaka portion teaches methods based on the philosophical interpretations of the rituals.

Upanishads: They appear at the concluding portions of the Vedas and contain the knowledge portion of the Vedas. The philosophy of the Upanishads is sublime, profound and soul stirring. They deal with the subject of Jagat, Jiva and Jagadishwara and their relationship. In the Vedas, we notice:-

  • Portions dealing with action or performance of rituals (referred to as Karma Kanda);
  • Portions dealing with method of worship and meditation (referred to as Upasana Kanda) and finally portions dealing with the highest knowledge or the knowledge of Brahman (Jnana Kanda).

Basically, Samhitas and Brahmanas constitute the karma kanda,the Aranyakas constitute the Upasana Kanda and Upanishads constitute the Jnana Kanda. Summarizing, the scheme of Vedic learning is first studying and recitation of the hymns (Samhita) followed by performance of Yajnas (Brahmana), then an enquiry into the rationale behind the performance of these Yajnas (Aranyaka) and lastly, an enquiry into ‘Paramatma Tattwa’ and attaining its actual experience (Upanishad). In many ways, the Rig Veda Samhita though the oldest, constitutes the basis for the other Samhitas. As an example, consider the Samhitas of Rig Veda (Sakala), Yajur Veda (Madhyandina), Sama Veda (Kauthuma) and Atharva Veda (Saunaka), we find a number of mantras are repeated.

Rig Veda mantras repeated in Sama Veda = 1800 Rig Veda mantras repeated in Yajur Veda = 581 : Rig Veda mantras repeated in Atharva Veda = 1260 In the case of the Rig Veda, Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda, there is a clear-cut separation of the Mantra collection from the Brahmana portions. In contrast, the Yajur Veda is of two types: Shukla (or white) Yajur Veda and Krishna (or black) Yajur Veda. In the former, the Mantra and Brahmana collections occur separate from each other. In the latter, the Mantra and the Brahmana portions are intermixed. Thus, the Taittiriya ‘Samhita’ belonging to the Krishna Yajur Veda has Mantras interspersed with Brahmana portions. Even the Taittiriya ‘Brahmana’ has both Mantras and Brahmana passages mixed with each other.

Coming to the Brahmana texts, there is often no clear-cut distinction between the Brahmanas proper and the Aranyakas, or between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Brahmana text proper often merges into the Aranyakas and many old Upanishads are actually embedded in the Aranyakas. At this stage, it may be appropriate to understand some of the terms we come across frequently in Vedic literature.

  • Mantras: They are hymns sung in praise of Gods. In the Rig Veda each Rik is a mantra.
  • Sookta: The Rig Veda Samhita is in the form of verses called Riks. In later years Riks came to be known as Slokas. A number of Riks or mantras constitute a Sookta. Examples are Purusha Sookta, Narayana Sookta, and Sri Sookta etc.
  • Sootra: They are aphorisms or declarations using minimum number of words. It contains the essence of the thought without any ambiguity. Examples are _ Brahma Sootra, Narada Bhakti Sootra, Patanjali Yoga Sootra etc.
  • Shakhas: The traditional source of information on the Shakhas of each Veda is Carana- Vyuha.

The Vedic literature that has come down to our times is attached to various traditional schools of recitation and ritual called “Shakhas”. The Rig Veda was then divided into 21 sections, the Yajur Veda into 109 sections (recessions), Sama Veda into 1000 sections and Atharva Veda into 50 sections. . Thus the whole Veda was divided into 1180 recessions. The tradition of recitation of Vedic texts originated in the north of India. Communities of Brahmins, over a period of time, migrated from one part of India to another. Thus the various Shakhas of Vedas were spread throughout India. Today, we now have only two Shakas of the Rig Veda, Shakala Shakha and Baskala Shaka, remain alive out of the 21 that existed at one time.

Vedas – Sub Divisions/Rig Veda Mantra Samhita: The Rig Veda Samhita is, generally, classified in two different schemes.

  • Mandala, Anuvaka and Sookta (known as Mandala- Sookta scheme)
  • Ashtak, Adhyaya and Sookta (known as Ashtak- Adhyaya scheme).

Of these two schemes, the Mandala- Sookta scheme is the most popular.

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