The Vedas are considered to be the most ancient literature in man's library. According to conservative estimates, they are over 45,000 years old. We know this because of geographical references in many passages of the Vedas which differ completely with the geography existing today. The great astronomers have also studied some of the passages in the Vedas and found references to astrological conjunctions which occurred as far back as one hundred thousand years ago.
Serious studies suggest that the Vedic hymns were not revealed at any one time or place, but seem to have originated in different times, countries and climates. Many of these hymns seem to have come down from the Arctic zone in the North Pole. Now, of course, this region is full of ice and snow, but once upon a time an advanced civilization of great culture and learning existed there.
A few Vedic hymns also appear to have been written somewhere in the region of Siberia, and others have come from certain areas of Afghanistan, the heart of Lahore and the northern Punjab. But almost all the Vedas are full of references to the Himalayas and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers.
Indian thinkers and great scholars from the west have concluded that the Arctic zones must have been the first home of the Vedas. But with the great geographical change that took place as the polar region became a snow region, this civilization began to move towards a more habitable land. These people ultimately found the plains of Ganga and Yamuna to be most fertile and welcoming. From the archaeological excavations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa which are now located in Pakistan, there is evidence of this shift of the Arctic home of the Vedas from the polar region to the Gangetic plain.
The literal meaning of Veda is 'revealed knowledge'. It is derived from the ancient Sanskrit root vid which means 'to know'. In the Vedic tradition, knowledge is not only intellectual; it also comes in the form of experience. Therefore, we always refer to knowledge as being of two types - either direct or indirect. Direct knowledge comes through the senses, mind and objects, while indirect knowledge comes from within. It is what we call intuitive knowledge.
Originally, the Vedic hymns were said to be divinely inspired by Lord Brahma, who revealed them to the rishis in a higher state of consciousness. Rishi refers to a person with inner knowledge or intuition. When the individual mind is tuned to the cosmic mind, one arrives at a new dimension of consciousness where everything that is thought, felt or seen becomes reality. This is the state of revelation. The Vedic hymns were composed by different rishis who had attained this state. For example, there was a princess who suffered from leprosy and was cured. From this time on she devoted her whole life to inner thinking. At a particular moment of inspiration, she began to compose hymns and these became a part of the Vedas.
In ancient times the Vedas were not written; they were spoken and had to be retained directly by the mind. No one took notes or studied from books. This method, known as the oral tradition, greatly increased the powers of the mind, particularly the memory. It is a fact that if man depends too much on the written word, the mind grows weak and unreceptive, and the memory remains dull. Memory only develops when the lessons are given orally, not through books.
In the original gurukul, the rishi or guru called a small group of disciples and taught them what he perceived during moments of ecstasy. After hearing these divine revelations, the disciples tried to practise what they had heard and keep it always in their hearts. This kind of teaching was later compiled and became known as Shruti, meaning 'heard'. The guru knew it, experienced it, and then revealed it to his disciples, who heard it. Then what happened was that those who had heard the revelations from their gurus eventually had disciples of their own, and so they passed on this knowledge to them, not as direct revelations, but as something they had remembered. In this way, the knowledge which was originally transmitted by inspired gurus, was frequently passed down by intellectual gurus. It, therefore, became known as Smriti, meaning 'memory'.
Thus we have the Vedas which are Shruti, knowledge obtained by direct revelation, and the Smritis, knowledge retained by memory and then passed down through the ages in the form of stories, so that the common man would remember. After the Vedas and Puranas, one more system developed, that is known as Sutras. Sutra means 'thread'. Here all the different thoughts on one topic were threaded together. When the guru was teaching a number of texts, the disciple just noted down a few things. Then that small thread had to be interpreted and explained in the form of commentaries so that the layman could understand. Thus, we have sutras on hatha yoga, karma, bhakti, and Vedanta. These small books contain the centralized themes of what the disciples learned from the guru, noted down and passed on to their disciples. They are very brief summaries, but their commentaries fill volumes.
The Vedas are an incomparable source of knowledge. The language in which they have been written is very exact and clear from every point of view. You cannot find even one flaw or exception in the grammar or expression. The Vedas are not just a scriptural text, they are a form of literature. Just as in science there are so many subjects and classifications, in the same way, the Vedas include so many branches and topics.
The most ancient of the four Vedas is Rigveda.
These were the verses which supposedly came down from the Arctic zone. They contain the myths of the Aryan gods, descriptions of sacrifices and other rites.
The second Veda is Yajurveda, which contains formulas for the sacrifices, as well as for everything which man does in the path of life.
The third Veda is Samaveda, which includes the chants. This was the origin of music. During the period when Samaveda was written, there were only three musical notes - sa, pa and sa - the first, fifth and seventh. According to tradition, the whole of the Vedas is always sung, not recited or repeated. There are different ways of singing, but most of the hymns are sung in these three notes.
The fourth Veda is Atharvaveda, and it comprises all the sciences. It contains tantra and yoga as well as medicine, surgery, herbology, minerals, archery, magic, sexual science, and many more topics. At first, the rishis did not accept the Atharvaveda as revelation. They said that only higher knowledge could be revealed, but ultimately, they had to accept that every kind of knowledge can be a revelation, not only the knowledge about Brahman.
The four Vedas deal with hundreds of topics. They discuss everything in life and after life. They refer to this planet that we live on and the different constellations beyond our solar system. So you can find every topic, whether it is spirituality, philosophy, politics or sociology. They talk about the soul's journey after death; the possibility of life in other solar systems; the fight between the divine and demonic forces in man and in society. They do not merely discuss politics and empires, they tell about geography and history as well as the absolute form of creation.
Although the original language of the Vedas is Sanskrit, they are how available in translation all over the world. However, the translations which were done in the early part of the century are generally not as perfect as those which came later. This is because the first western scholars were very limited as far as guidance was concerned. When Max Mueller came to India for research, the intellectual class was totally blinded by western imperialism and had forgotten their own heritage. Only the brahmins could help him, but they knew no English. So an interpreter was needed and usually the interpreter had no background in the subject. Therefore, these earlier translations were very often inept.
The topics discussed in each of the four Vedas were so numerous that they had to be further classified into four divisions.
The first division is called Samhitas. This is a collection of mantras and prayers presented to those individuals who practised ritualistic and symbolic worship. They are used in various ceremonies such as birth, death, marriage, building a house, opening a shop, starting of agriculture, initiating a disciple, and for many other purposes.
The second division, called the Brahmanas, is a code of ethics meant to be practised by householders. It is very technical and discusses everything in relation to the family and society. For example, it tells why family members should not intermarry; how a minister, a king, or a policeman should conduct his affairs; how property should be changed over and taxes levied; and all kinds of things. This division deals mostly with the mundane aspects of life, although it is intended for spiritual life also.
The third division is called Aranyakas, the forest scriptures, which were intended for those people who, having fulfilled their obligations as householders, are ready to lead a more spiritual life away from the family environment. How these people should conduct themselves, and live with their wives, all the things they should do and should not do, are contained in this third division.
The fourth division is the Upanishads. They deal purely with philosophical matters such as the Atman, the supreme being, the higher consciousness, and how to attain this supreme state in life. These were revealed to sannyasins who had fulfilled all their worldly obligations and attachments, no longer had desire for property, power and responsibility, and who wanted to live alone. For them, the most marvelous literature is the Upanishads. These books don't speak about birth, death and marriage. They only speak about one thing; Brahman, the Absolute, the total reality.
These four divisions of the Vedas have influenced civilizations and cultures for many thousands of years. They make it very clear that the purpose of human life is to attain divine consciousness. We may have desires, passions and ambitions, but the spirit of every man is a pilgrim, a traveler to that higher divine consciousness. All beings, not only man, are related to one another. The different species are one link in a great chain, and according to the Vedas, human birth is considered to be a very important milestone in the evolution of the soul.
As a human being, you are born with a certain amount of self-awareness. Man is not great just because he has developed a logical or reasoning mind. There are many animals with a more competent and sensitive mind than man, but man has come to the point where he is aware of himself. If a man is suffering he knows that he is suffering and he knows that he knows he is suffering. It is not just that he is reacting to nervous or sensual pain.
Therefore, the Vedas speak of one thing - Brahman or universal consciousness, which is permanent in everything, sentient, and insentient. This should not be misunderstood as mind, intellect, feeling, knowledge or sensation. It is completely different from and transcends all that.
In the Vedas there is what we call a tradition of free thinking. Therefore, the thousands of hymns are definitely not very uniform or systematic. For instance, people are sitting and discussing the reality of nature, or the source of life: 'life is an accident,' says one thinker. 'No, God created it,' says another. 'It is cosmic will,' puts in a third. 'No, it is just the way of nature to create itself,' says a fourth.
All these concepts are found in the Vedas. Thus in the Hindu religion, there are so many branches of thought. If you believe in a personal god, that is in the Vedas. If you are an atheist and believe that creation is the result of biological interaction between male and female, that is also in the Vedas. Or if you think that, due to some accident, the earth broke away from the sun, and thereby developed an environment suitable to support life, this too is in the Vedas. If you believe that God is nameless and formless, existing everywhere in everybody - you will find that view also in the Vedas.
So we can conclude that the Vedas are a process of free discussion that took place between human beings over thousands of years. For example, you may say, 'God is sitting there sending orders.' Someone else who thinks in his own way, writes down your ideas, but will say that he disagrees and explains why. Therefore, in the Vedas, no idea, discussion, or conclusion about higher thinking has been rejected.
Human beings must proceed on to spiritual life and enlightenment according to their own status in life. If you' speak about absolute Brahman or formless reality, no one will understand. Even in temples and churches there are many who do not know what the gods and goddesses represent, nor why they go there and bow down.
The important thing is, how does man proceed according to his limitations? Does he change his way and come to your way? What is the certainty that your way is correct and his way is wrong, or his way is correct and yours is wrong? Therefore, the Vedas say all ways are right. If you are a traveler on the spiritual path, it does not matter which way you take as long as you keep on walking.
In the Rigveda there is a mantra which translates: "The reality is one, but those who know, speak of it in different terms." The truth, the absolute experience, can be described in many ways. Therefore, the Vedas have long been considered the fountain source of a people who believe the ways are many and the goal is one.
The culmination of the Vedic knowledge is the Upanishads. They comprise discussions and instructions between the guru and disciple. The guru is imparting knowledge of the higher self, super awareness, or God, directly to the disciple.
The following story is taken from the Katha Upanishad, a very important text. Once there was a great rishi, who was growing old and wanted to give away all his possessions in charity. When his small son saw him giving everything away, he asked: 'Father, to whom will you give me?' The father ignored him, so the persistent boy asked again: 'Father, to whom will you give me?' The father still ignored him. Then, he asked a third time: 'Unto whom will you give me?' The father was annoyed and said: 'Unto death I shall give you!'
Immediately the boy transcended this mortal plane and entered the plane of death. There, he waited at Yama's gate for three days and nights because the Lord of Death was out at that time. When the Lord of Death came back, he heard that a child had been waiting to see him. He came to the boy and said: 'My child, you have been waiting at my gate for a long time and you are the son of a great sage. I am sorry. You may ask me for three boons.' So the boy asked for the first two boons and they were granted. But the third one was not so simple: 'Some say there is survival after death, while others say there is not,' said the boy. 'Please tell me which is the truth.'
The Lord of Death replied: 'I cannot answer this question. It must remain a secret for all time. Nobody should ever know the answer.' The child said: 'But I want to know.' Then the Lord of Death gave him many temptations: 'I shall give you gold, diamonds, damsels, whatever you want, even a kingdom,' he said, 'but do not ask me this question.' Then the child said: 'What you are offering is very pleasant, but it is mundane. I want that which will give me spiritual awareness and real knowledge.'
Then the Lord of Death went on to instruct the little boy in the mysteries of life and death, mind and soul. In one of the stanzas the Lord of Death says: 'This is the razor's edge on which you have to walk.' Here he is referring not only to the difficulties of spiritual life, but also to the point at which you have to die, not physically, but on a different plane. This mundane awareness has to cease, and therefore he makes clear the difference between mundane awareness and spiritual awareness. Mundane awareness is ever changing but spiritual awareness does not change. It is permanent. So, these are the subjects discussed in many, many ways in the Upanishads.
Besides the four Vedas, there are the eighteen books of stories known as the Puranas. These talk about the same topics already discussed, but here they are interpreted in story form so that the absolute truth can be remembered by the people.
These stories are written in a very interesting style. There is everything from poetry, music, excitement, exaggeration to realism and austerity of expression. Beauty is described in the language of beauty, a flower in the language of a flower, a warrior in the language of a warrior.
Here the process of evolution is explained in the form of stories, such as the ten avataras or incarnations of Vishnu, which goes something like this: first the water was born and God incarnated in the form of a fish - Matsya avatara. Next God was born in the form of a tortoise - Kurma avatara. The third time he came as a boar - Varaha avatara. The fourth, a half man/half lion - Narasimha avatara; the fifth as a dwarf - Vamana avatara; the sixth, an angry, violent man - Parasurama. In the seventh stage, God incarnated in the form of Rama, a disciplined, calm, quiet and purposeful man. In the eighth incarnation he was Krishna, a romantic youth, playing the flute, eating butter and cheese, dancing and playing with girls, but at the same time, teaching yoga. In the ninth incarnation, he was born as Buddha, who taught the way of love, compassion and non-violence. Finally, the tenth incarnation is Kalki avatara, yet to come at the end of the Kali Yuga.
These divine incarnations are the main theme for many of the stories told in the Puranas, but the description is very poetic. In India, all the children are used to hearing these stories from their mothers and grandmothers. So, to us, they seem to be very real. Even in the external sense, they appear real because the evolution of the universe has proceeded in nearly the same way. If you study Darwin's theory, you find almost the same progression: water, reptile, mammal, stone age man, civilized man, wise man.
One thing you must remember, Indians are very talkative people. It is difficult for them to agree, they always say, 'Is that the truth? How do you know it?' They have a very democratic way of thinking because they have always been free to think. So there are many stories about creation, such as the one about the ocean of milk.
In the middle of the ocean is a large serpent upon which Lord Narayana or Vishnu reposes. You must have seen this picture; the hood of a snake shading his head and Lakshmi, his beautiful consort, shampooing his feet. From Vishnu's navel springs a lotus and on the pericarp sits an old man with a long, flowing white beard and four heads. His name is Brahma, the creator. He created the earth, moon, sun, and everything in the manifested universe.
This is another type of story to exemplify a different way of thinking. All these books talk about the various possibilities of events. Now it is you who has to find out what is the truth. Once you go into those views, you will be surprised and also a bit confused, because they are so rich in explanation, you do not know what is the truth. One says water, fish and tortoise are the first stages of creation. Another says, 'No, it began with the ocean of milk, and Brahma is the creator.'
So if you wish to penetrate this fascinating form of philosophical discussion, it will be better to plunge straight into the various texts. In fact, when I was reading them, I was completely surprised by the infinite varieties of expression along with the use of poetry to talk about the highest truths. Everything is explained through illustration and you get a wonderful glimpse into the Hindu way of thinking, which is said to be the basis of all philosophies and spiritual life.