By Dr. Korada Subrahmanyam

1. Introduction

Veda means a mass of knowledge and is considered as the most ancient literature known to humans. Unlike any other literature, the Vedic one is apauruṣeya (non-human), i.e. not authored by human beings. Uninterrupted tradition tells us that Veda had emanated from Brahmā at the beginning of Creation. Since Creation repeats, Veda is considered as “anādi” (beginningless) and “ananta” (endless) and as such it is indestructible.

Veda can be divided into two major parts – the first one deals with Karma (rituals) and the second one with Jñāna (cognition). A careful survey of Veda leads us to believe that apart from the above two goals, Veda also offers – guidelines to protect the Elements, purification of mind, harmony in the society, personality development etc.
The roots of Dharma can be traced to Veda.

Until Vedavyāsa, a sage, ventured to divide, there was a single mass of Veda. Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda and Atharvaveda have emerged after the division. Originally Ṛgveda had had 21 branches; Yajurveda, 100 branches; Sāmaveda, 1000 branches; and Atharvaveda, 9 branches. Presently only 12 branches of all Vedas are available. Ṛgveda contains Ṛks (hymns) that praise the deity. Yajurveda consists of Yajus (sentences) that explain the performance of rituals. Sāmaveda is nothing but Ṛgveda associated with music (Sāmagāna). Atharvaveda consists of a blend of prose and poetry. Apart from spiritual matters, Atharvaveda deals with matters of mundane importance such as health, polity etc. also.

2. Dichotomy of Veda

Broadly Veda can be put under two headings – Mantrabhāga and Brāhmaṇabhāga. The term “mantra” literally means, “the one that protects if recited with meditation”. Mantras are used in Yajñas (sacrifices and rituals) and other Karmas (rites). Saṃhitā is a synonym of Mantrabhāga. Brāhmaṇas explain the Mantras. Āraṇyakas and Upaniṣads are also included in Brāhmaṇas.

3. Dichotomy of Purpose

Following the two kinds of purpose that is being served, Veda can be divided into two parts – the former that proposes Karmas (rites such as Yajña) that would help in attaining Svarga (heaven) and the latter that proposes Jñāna (cognition) that is required to attain Mokṣa (union of individual soul with universal soul). According to Muṇḍakopaniṣat of Atharvaveda (1-1-4 & 5) the earlier parts of Vedas and Vedāṅgas is called Aparā vidyā whereas the Upaniṣats are Parā vidyā.

4. Cultural Background

The Indian Culture stands on four pillars called Puruṣārthas (purposes of human life) – Dharma, Artha (money matters), Kāma (married life) and Mokṣa. The term Dharma is pregnant with meaning, and hence is untranslatable.
Some people offer the word “religion” for Dharma but it is bad translation as back translation fails – “religion” means “matam” (liked by one or a group of people). Dharma is universal – “satyam vada” (speak the truth), “ahiṃsā paramo dharmaḥ” (non-violence is the best Dharma) etc. are examples.

5. Dharma as the base

The Vedic tradition firmly stands on a base called Dharma, i.e. one can attain Mokṣa (by which the cycle of birth and death is arrested once and for all) only by following Dharma and one should see that both Artha and Kāma are associated with Dharma. Dharma leads one to Svarga (heaven) and Mokṣa, whereas Adharma (non-dharma) would cause Naraka (hell).

6. Theory of Karma

Further, any activity associated with Dharma would cause Sukham (all-round comfort) in the next birth whereas the one associated with Adharma causes Duḥkham (misery) in the next birth. This is the essence of the Theory of Karma, or Karmasiddhānta.

7. Threefold Karmas

The Karmas (rituals) to be performed by a human being as ordained by Veda are of three types –

i. Nityakarma (regular rites): Sandhyāvandanam (worship during dawn and dusk), Agnihotram (worship of fire), Svādhyāya (reciting Veda) etc. are called Nityakarma, i.e. a Karma that is mandatory and regular.

ii. Naimittikakarma (a rite caused by an event): Ābdīkam (death ceremony), Gṛhapraveśa (entering a new house / housewarming ceremony) etc. are called Naimittikakarma.

iii. Kāmyakarma (rite with a desire): Vivāha (marriage) is for children, Jyotiṣṭoma (a sacrifice) is done to attain Svarga (heaven) – such Karma is called Kāmyakarma.

While the first two, i.e. Nitya and Naimittika are meant for Cittaśuddhi (cleansing the mind), Kāmyakarma is to get the desired result. One may perform a Kāmyakarma without desire and it, then, yields Cittaśuddhi.

8. The four Āśramas (the four stages of life)

As per the Vedic tradition one would go through four stages of life:

i. Brahmacaryam (as a celibate involved in learning Veda, Vedāṅgas etc.)

ii. Gārhasthyam (as a house-holder, i.e. living with wife)

iii. Vānaprastham (living in a forest with / without wife)

iv. Saṃnyāsam (life of a hermit)

People belonging to the first three Āśramas would perform all the three kinds of Karmas mentioned earlier, whereas Nitya and Naimittika are mandatory even for a Saṃnyāsin. The term Saṃnyāsa literally means “giving up Kāmyakarmas”. On the other hand a Brahmacārī may skip the second and third Āśramas and prefer Saṃnyāsa, if he so wishes.

There are forty Saṃskāras (rituals) that start with Garbhādhānam (impregnation) and end with Aparam (death related ritual) enumerated in Smṛtis. Sixteen of them are considered as important (Ṣoḍaśasaṃskārāḥ). By and large, the very purpose of all Karmas is achieving Cittaśuddhi (cleansing of mind), which in turn would help in attaining Mokṣa through Jñānam.

The latter part of Veda, called Upaniṣads or Vedānta (end part of Veda) advocates Jñānam, which would directly lead to Mokṣa.

9. Vedaśākhas named after Ṛṣis

In Vedic literature we come across certain Branches named after sages – Kāṭhaka, Kālāpaka etc. This does not mean that those sages, viz. Kaṭha, Kalāpa etc. had authored those particular Vedic branches. Rather, it should be taken that those Ṛṣis had specialized or propagated the branches named after them. One thing should be noted – Śabda is Nitya (immutable). So the Veda, in its full form, was recited and is there. After some time, only some branches were being learnt and the rest were not known to people. In such a situation, Ṛṣis did perform Tapas (leading an ascetic life) and perceived certain portions of Veda. Then they, popularly called Mantradraṣṭāraḥ (who perceived Mantras), propagated those Mantras for the benefit of common people. Therefore, it is decided in Mīmāṃsā, Vyākaraṇa etc. that Veda is Apauruṣeya (non-human) and the names are that of specialists or propagators.

10. Vedāṅgas

The Vedas, if recited with the knowledge of meaning, would be fruitful. The Vedic literature is supported by six Vedāṅgas and six Upāṅgas / Darśanas, which are essential to have a first-hand knowledge of the content. The chart given in Appendix 1 shows the fourteen Vidyāsthānas. The six Vedāṅgas (limbs of Veda personified – Vedapuruṣa) are:

i. Śikṣā (Phonetics): This is considered as the nose of Vedapuruṣa and deals with impeccable pronunciation, Svaras (accents) etc.

ii. Vyākaraṇam (Grammar): It is considered as the mouth of Vedapuruṣa and deals with the form of Śabda. A Śabda is acceptable to Vyākaraṇam fetches Dharma.

iii. Niruktam (Etymology): This is considered as the two ears of Vedapuruṣa and discusses the meanings of Vaidikaśabdas.

iv. Chandas (Prosody): Chandas is the two feet of Vedapuruṣa and explains the meter etc. of Vedic hymns.

v. Jyotiṣam (Astrology): Considered as the eyes of Vedapuruṣa, Jyotiṣam deals with movement of stars and planets, auspicious and inauspicious time etc., that is required to fix time for rites.

vi. Kalpaḥ (the practical part of Veda): Kalpa is the two hands of Vedapuruṣa. It deals with the practical part of rites – how to do.

11. Upāṅgas / Darśanas (Systems of Indian Philosophy)

The six Darsanas among the Upāṅgas are important —

i. Pūrvamīmāṃsā: The term Mīmāṃsā means discussion. Pūrva means earlier. This system deals with the earlier part of Veda, i.e. related to Karma, leading to Svarga (heaven).

ii. Uttaramīmāṃsā: Also called Vedānta. Uttara means “latter”. This system deals with the latter part of Veda, called Upaniṣat, i.e. related to Jñāna, leading to Mokṣa.

iii. Sāṅkhyam: This system deals with the twenty-four entities and shows the way to Kaivalyam (Mokṣa).

iv. Yogaḥ: Yoga means “arresting the behaviour of mind”. “Aṣṭāṅgayoga” is a means of achieving Kaivalyam through cleansing the mind.

v. Nyāya: This system is popularly known as Logic. The noumenon of things can be known through Pramāṇas (means of knowledge) such as Pratyakṣam (Perception), Anumānam (Inference) etc. and such a cognition would lead to Mokṣa – says Nyāyadarśanam.

vi. Vaiśeṣikam: This System discusses seven entities and advocates the theory of Atom. There are similarities between Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika.

12. Bhakti, Karma and Jñānam (Devotion, Rituals and Cognition)

Veda advocates three ways to achieve the final Puruṣārtha (purpose of life), viz. Mokṣa:

i. Bhakti (Devotion): This is meant for one who is not intelligent or one who cannot for some reason or the other, perform the rituals (Karmas), that require a lot of patience, health and sometimes even wealth. Total surrender to God and different kinds of worship are the hallmarks of Bhakti.

ii. Karma (Rituals): Karma is meant for people who can sustain the complicated procedures of different Karmas ordained by Veda and Kalpa, following it.

iii. Jñānam (Cognition or spiritual knowledge): The path of Jñāna is for people with intellect. Learning Upaniṣadic texts, meditating and concentrating on the meaning of such texts would help one in attaining Jñānam, which, in turn, would burn the accumulated Karma (saṃcita karma) and pave the way to Mokṣa directly.

It may be noted that Bhakti and Karma slowly cause Cittaśuddhi (cleansing the mind) and generate Jñānam. So, Bhakti and Karma cannot directly be instrumental in achieving Mokṣa, but through Jñānam. A Jñāni can get his saṃcitakarma (the karma accrued through earlier incarnations) burnt but has to undergo the Prārabdhakarma (the Karma already started in this life). Here, the term Karma (Saṃcita / Prārabdha) means “the result of Karma” and it can be good or bad, i.e. caused by Puṇyam or Pāpam (sin).

13. What is Veda?

Veda is a device that provides non-mundane solutions for getting the desired things and averting the undesired ones.

14. Yāga and Yajña (sacrifice / ritual)

Both the terms are synonyms. They are formed through the verbal root “yuj” (to worship). There are a number of Yāgas described in Veda, such as Darśapūrṇamāsa (performed during new moon day and full moon day). One desirous of Svarga (heaven) should perform this Yāga –

darśapūrṇamāsābhyāṃ svargakāmo yajeta.
Yajña, on the other hand, is a term used in the sense of Yāga and other kinds of worship as well – the Pañcamahāyajñas, enumerated in Taittirīyāraṇyakam (2-10-1) are to be performed regularly:

पञ्च वा एते महायज्ञास्सतति प्रतायन्ते सतति सन्तिष्ठन्ते। देवयज्ञः पितृयज्ञो भूतयज्ञो मनुष्ययज्ञो ब्रह्मयज्ञ इति। यदग्नौ जुहोत्यपि समिधं तद्देवयज्ञस्सन्तिष्ठते। यत्पितृभ्यस्स्वधाकरोत्यप्यपस्तत्पितृ-यज्ञस्सन्तिष्ठते। यद्भूतेभ्यो बलिं हरति तद्भूतयज्ञस्सन्तिष्ठते। यद्ब्राह्मणेभ्योऽन्नं ददाति तन्मनुष्य-यज्ञस्सन्तिष्ठते। यत्स्वाध्यायमधीयीतैकामप्यृचं यजुस्साम वा तद्ब्रह्मयज्ञस्सन्तिष्ठते। . . . ॥ तैत्तिरीयारण्यकम्, २-१॰-१॥

pañcavāetemahāyajñāssatatipratāyantesatatisantiṣṭhante. devayajñaḥpitṛyajñobhūtayajñomanuṣyayajñobrahmayajñaiti. yadagnaujuhotyapisamidhaṃtaddevayajñassantiṣṭhate. yatpitṛbhyassvadhākarotyapyapastat-pitṛyajñassantiṣṭhate. yadbhūtebhyobaliṃharatitadbhūtayajñassantiṣṭhate. yadbrāhmaṇebhyo’nnaṃdadātitanmanuṣyayajñassantiṣṭhate. yatsvādhyāyam-adhīyītaikāmapyṛcaṃyajussāmavātadbrahmayajñassantiṣṭhate. . . .॥Taittirīyāraṇyakam, 2-10-1 ॥

These five, viz. Devayajñaḥ, Pitṛyajñaḥ, Bhūtayajñaḥ, Manuṣyayajñaḥ and Brahmayajñaḥ are called Pañcamahāyajñas.

i. Devayajñaḥ (Worship of Gods): At least one “samit” (small stick of specific trees) should be offered to Agni (Fire) and this is called Devayajña.

ii. Pitṛyajñaḥ (Worship of forefathers etc.): Tarpaṇam (offering holy water) has to be performed to forefathers who passed away, viz. father, his father and the latter’s father, mother, her mother-in-law and the latter’s mother-in-law. This is called Pitṛyajña or Pitṛtarpaṇam.

iii. Bhūtayajñaḥ (Worship of beings): Offering food to beings is called Bhūtayajña.

iv. Manuṣyayajñaḥ (Worship of a Brāhmaṇa): A Brāhmaṇa ( Brahmajñānī ) has to be offered food and it is called Manuṣyayajña. Depending on the financial status more than one Brāhmaṇa can be worshipped.

v. Brahmayajñaḥ (Worship of Veda): At least one Ṛk / Yajus / Sāma has to be recited and it is called Brahmayajña. Some Mantras from all the four Vedas and some Sūtras from Vedāṅgas are recited as per the tradition of Brahmayajña.

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15. Vedas are Multifaceted and Universal

If we conduct a careful survey of even the available Vedic literature we come across a number of issues concerning Creation, non-pollution of Elements, non-polluted mind, personality development, social unity, treatment of elders, conjugal relationship, polity, economic prosperity etc., which are not directly confined to spiritual life but are essential in maintaining universal peace, health, hygiene, prosperity and unity. Here are some Sūktas (chapters of good-sayings):

i. Nāsadīyasūktam (Ṛgveda 10-8-129)

This Sūktam describes the situation before Creation. Since it starts with “nāsadāsīt” (na asat āsīt, before creation there was no “asat”, i.e. the perishable mundane world) it is called so. There are two things – Sat and Asat. Literally “Sat” means “the one that exists” and “Asat” means “the one that does not exist”,ie is not real. Both these words frequently occur in Vedas and Darśanas (Sāṅkhya, Vedānta etc.). In other words, the term “Sat” is used to denote Brahman, which is the very cause of the universe and is immutable.The universe is referred to as “Asat” , as it is not real / immutable.
Knowing “Sat” through Jñānam and the subsequent merger of Jīvātmā (individual soul) with Paramātmā (universal soul, i.e. Sat / Brahman) is called Mokṣa. Here are the salient features of Nāsadīyasūktam:

Śāntimantra (the mantra for peace) consists of several sentences and such a Mantra has to be recited at the beginning and end of respective chapter.
The word “Om” called Praṇava has to be prefixed to every Mantra.
At the end of Śāntimantra, the term “śāntiḥ” has to be pronounced thrice – “om śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ”. Here the first one is to have peace by averting the Ādhyātmikakleśas, i.e. the difficulties related to mind and body. The second one is to ward off the Ādhibhautikakleśas, i.e. the difficulties caused by other beings. The third one is to prevent the difficulties caused by natural calamities called Ādhidaivikakleśāḥ.

Meaning of the Śāntimantra of Nāsadīyasūktam – “we pray to the one who provides comfort, we pray the Yajña (ritual) should finish well, we pray for those who perform the Yajña, should divine blessings fall on us, let there be safety to human beings, let the flora grow upwards, should the beings both two-feet and four-feet have comfort and prosperity.”

1. Earlier to Creation there was neither Asat nor Sat. Neither earth nor sky. What is it that looks like an enclosure? Where is it? Who would experience the comfort and misery? Was this impassable and profound deluge then?

2. Then there was no death nor immortality. No sign of day or night. The Brahman that was without breath, breathed with the capacity within. Except that Brahman there was nothing beyond.

3. Earlier to Creation, darkness was engulfed by darkness. It was a complete deluge and nothing can be identified. The Brahman, who got the universe embedded within himself, who was covered by vacuum and who was alone, got exhibited himself through his capacity of Tapas (ascetic way of life).

4. The first seed of mind, i.e. the desire, was born in the first place. The sages, who were searching through mind, discovered, through clairvoyance, the relation between Sat and Asat.

ii. Puruṣasūktam (Ṛgveda 10-90-1, Sāmaveda 617, Atharvaveda 19-6-1, Taittirīyāraṇyakam 3-12-1, Śuklayajurveda (Vājasaneyisaṃhitā) 30.1-22)

This Sūktam, which is related to Puruṣa (the person that is the cause of universe), can be traced to all Vedas. It is also a combination of Mantra, Brāhmaṇa and Upaniṣat parts. The Śāntimantra is the same as Nāsadīyasūktam.

1. The Puruṣa (also called Virāṭpuruṣaḥ) has got innumerable hands, eyes and feet, i.e. these limbs of all the beings in the universe (Brahmāṇḍa) which are there in the Puruṣa, are considered as that of the Puruṣa. Such a Puruṣa permeated the entire universe and stood beyond a length of ten inches, i.e. he is there spread outside the universe also.

2. The universe – that is at present, that was there during the earlier creations and the one that will be there in the future, is nothing but Puruṣa only. And he is the lord of immortality. Because he himself exhibits in the form of the perishable universe, i.e. he takes the form of the universe in order to see that the beings are made to face their Karma and therefore the universe should not be considered as his real form.

3. Whatever universe, is there in the past, present and future, it is the capacity of Puruṣa, but not his real form. The real Puruṣa is much greater than the universe. The total number of beings of past, present and future are just one fourth of the Puruṣa. Three fourth of his form, which is immortal and self-shining is there within.

4. Such a three fourth Puruṣa is above all this universe, i.e. not touched by the virtues or vices of the universe. The one fourth of his form rotates with creation and destruction. Then, having taken the form of universe, he permeated into living and non-living things, i.e. he spread by taking different forms of Gods, human beings, animals, birds, mountains, rivers etc.

5. From that Ādipuruṣa (first person) this universe (Virāṭ) was born. From Virāṭ one Puruṣa was born, i.e. the Puruṣa himself, through the capacity called Māyā, created the universe and became a Jīva (being). Such a Virāṭ took the form of Gods, human beings, animals, birds etc. and then created the earth and the bodies of beings.

6. Then the Gods, in order to continue the creation and since no material was available, used Puruṣa himself as oblation and performed a mental Yajña. Spring was the ghee (clarified butter), Summer was the sacred stick, Autumn (Fall) was the oblation. (Puruṣa was the general oblation and Fall was the specific oblation).

8. From that Yajña they got clarified butter, curd and other things. Forest animals like deer etc. and village animals like cow etc., which have got Vāyu (air) as their deity were also produced.

9. Ṛgveda, Sāmaveda, Yajurveda and Chandas (prosody) like Gāyatrī are born out of the Yajña.

10. Horses, animals with two jaws, cows, goats and sheep were also born out of the Yajña.

11. A Puruṣa, called Virāṭ was produced by Gods, who were the life of Prajāpati (=Brahman). How was he produced? What was his face? What were his hands, thighs and feet?

12. Brāhmaṇa was his face, i.e. Brāhmaṇa was born out of the face of Prajāpati. Kṣatriya was from the hands, Vaiśya from thighs and Śūdra was from the feet. (There are four varṇas (castes) in Indian society – Brāhmaṇa (the priestly class), Kṣatriya (ruling class), Vaiśya (traders) and Śūdras (who render service). All these, according to Veda are born out of the same Virāṭpuruṣa and perform different duties in the society).

13. Moon was born from the mind of Prajāpati, Sun from the eyes, Indra (king of Gods) and Agni (Fire) from the face and from the Prāṇa (breath) the Air.

14. From Prajāpati’s navel the sky was born, from head the heaven, and from the feet the earth, from ears the directions. Like that the Gods produced the world (universe).

iii. Yājñavalkya-Maitreyī-saṃvādaḥ (the discussion between Yājñavalkya and Maitreyī)

The discussion is there in Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣat. Yājñavalkya is a great sage and Mumukṣu (who desires Mokṣa). He tells Maitreyī – “just like me, if you also want Vairāgyam (detachment) and Mumukṣutvam (the desire for Mokṣa) then I shall explain the device called Jñānam (cognition) for attaining Mokṣa. Listen to me with concentration because it is pregnant with meaning”.
One small extract (2-4-5) is given below:

स होवाच न वा अरे पत्युः कामाय पतिः प्रियो भवत्यात्मनस्तु कामाय पतिः प्रियो भवति । न वा अरे जायायै कामाय जाया प्रिया भवत्यात्मनस्तु कामाय जाया प्रिया भवति । न वा अरे पुत्राणां कामाय पुत्राः प्रिया भवन्त्यात्मनस्तु कामाय पुत्राः प्रिया भवन्ति । न वा अरे वित्तस्य कामाय वित्तं प्रियं भवत्यात्मनस्तु कामाय वित्तं प्रियं भवति । न वा अरे ब्रह्मणः कामाय ब्रह्म प्रियं भवत्यात्मनस्तु कामाय ब्रह्म प्रियं भवति । . . . आत्मा वा अरे द्रष्टव्यः श्रोतव्यो मन्तव्यो निदिध्यासितव्यो मैत्रेयी . . . ॥ बृहदारण्यकोपनिषद्, २-४-५ ॥

sahovācanavā are patyuḥkāmāyapatiḥpriyobhavatyātmanastukāmāyapatiḥpriyobhavati . navā are jāyāyaikāmāyajāyāpriyābhavatyātmanastukāmāyajāyāpriyābhavati . navā are putrāṇāṃkāmāyaputrāḥpriyābhavantyātmanastukāmāyaputrāḥpriyābhavanti . navā are vittasyakāmāyavittaṃpriyaṃbhavatyātmanastukāmāyavittaṃpriyaṃbhavati . navā are brahmaṇaḥkāmāya brahma priyaṃbhavatyātmanastukāmāya brahma priyaṃbhavati . . . . ātmāvā are draṣṭavyaḥśrotavyomantavyonididhyāsitavyomaitreyī . . . ॥bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad, 2-4-5 ॥

A wife is in love with her husband not for his sake but for her own sake. A husband is in love with his wife not for her sake but for his own sake. Children are liked not for their sake but for parents’ sake. Love for money is not for its sake but for one’s own sake. Love for Brahman is not for its sake, but for one’s own sake. . . . Therefore, Maitreyī! Ātmā (the Brahman) has to be seen, to be heard, to be pondered over and to be meditated.

iv. Ṛgveda 10-191-4

The last Mantra of Ṛgveda (10-191-4) deals with equality among human beings:

Let the desires of all of us be the same.
Let the hearts of all of us be the same.
Let the thoughts of all of us run on the same rope.
Let all of us unite and become good friends.

समानी व आकूतिः समाना हृदयानि वः।
समानमस्तु वो मनो यथा वः सुसहासति ॥ १॰-१९१-४ ॥

samānī va ākūtiḥ samānā hṛdayāni vaḥ ।
samānamastu vo mano yathā vaḥ susahāsati ॥ 10-191-4

1. Ṛgvedasaṃhitā, Nag Prakashak, Delhi, 1994.
2. Sāmavaedasaṃhitā, Nag Prakashak, Delhi, 1994.
3. Yajurvedasaṃhitā, Nag Prakashak, Delhi, 1994.
4. Atharvavedasaṃhitā, Nag Prakashak, Delhi, 1994.
5. Ṛgarthasāra, Dinakarabhaṭṭa, Vol. I, The Sanskrit Academy, Hyderabad, 1959.
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