An Introduction to the Vedas
The Vedas represent the most sacred heritage of the mankind.
The Vedas reflect the growth and development of human thought over a span of scores of centuries. They vividly present a picture of the transformation of a prakrit man into a sanskrit man.
The Vedas are regarded as divine in origin. They are referred to as apaurusheya. They are not produced by a couple of individuals. They are not composed by some poets or authors. The Vedas constitute the sublime knowledge revealed to our great ancestors while they were doing their penance. It is not an acquired knowledge. It is the sublime knowledge revealed to them in their meditation by the Supreme Divinity. The ancient sages, while doing their tapasya and sadhana, ‘heard’ the divine truths. Whatever was ‘heard’ or ‘revealed’ to the great sages was presented in the Vedas and the Upanishads.
The Vedas are eternal. They are timeless. They are without a beginning. They were not composed at a certain time. No doubt, they might have acquired the verbal form during certain period in history. They are timeless in the sense that they are beyond the confines of time. They are the eternal truths beyond the influence of time. Time or place can not affect the significance of the knowledge ‘contained’ in the Vedas.
The Vedas are divine and eternal. The Vedas are truly considered to be the boundless repository of “knowledge par excellence”.
The Vedas are known as the Shruti literature.
The Shruti is treated as the supreme and ultimate authority. The authentic Smriti literature has had its basis in the Shruti. Whenever a difference arises between the Shruti and the Smriti, the Shruti statement is accepted as the final word. Needless to say, the Smriti is to be interpreted in consonance with the Shruti. From time to time the Smriti might undergo modifications, but the Shruti can not be altered at all.
The ancient Rishis led a very pious life which was further sanctified by the austerity of penance. They could ‘hear’ the silence of the Divinity and could ‘see’ the Infinite. The Vedic Rishi is referred to as a drashta or a seer. The Vedic Rishis could ‘see’ even the transcendental truth as they were great ‘seers’. The ‘divine truths’ were revealed to them while they were in meditation on higher spiritual planes. The Vedas contain the ‘divine knowledge’ revealed to the great Rishis in their “Supra-normal Consciousness”, as Shri Aurobindo says.
The Vedas present the sublime form of knowledge. This knowledge is impersonal. It is divine. It is absolute, veritable and inviolable. It is eternal; it is timeless. It remains unaffected at all times, at all places, under all circumstances. Hence the Vedas are adjudged the Swatah Pramana or self-evident. That means their truths do not need any proof, support or elaboration.
The Vedas encompass the human life. They do not belong to a particular religion or a race or a country. They are the holy scriptures of Hinduism, but they equally belong to the human race. Dr. Radhakrishnan refers to the Vedas as "the earliest documents of the human mind."
What do the Vedas contain?
The Vedas contain the mantras. These mantras have different specific purposes.
Most of them are symbolic. Some of them are hymns addressed to the deities. Some of them are for ceremonial purposes or for the rites and rituals. Some deal with the social life. There are references to the sciences and mathematics also. Discussions on the topics of chemistry, astronomy, botany, zoology, physiology, medical therapeutics and bio-sciences are also found in the Vedas.
The Vedas reflect all the aspects of existence. They throw light on the Srishti (the creation), the Brahman, the atman, the life and all the related issues of spiritualism. The Vedas present a record of the philosophical progress of man.
However it should be remembered that neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads propagate a specific ideology or a doctrine. As such they are not philosophical treatises. Yet one finds ample evidence of subtle philosophical thoughts from the verses.
In the Vedas, several portions are repeated in toto. A large number of mantras are found to be repetitious. It may be noted that the chapters or the mantras are not sequential. The ideas and thoughts in a single chapter may seem to be illogical or incoherent. There are instances of unexplainable digressions from a theme within a chapter. Hence one may not find a systematic, logical development of a doctrine. However, it does not undermine the significance of the Vedas.
A great deal of scholastic ability is required to interpret the Vedas. A single word may have different meanings in different contexts. Many mantras are cryptic statements to a lay man. Some of them are too enigmatic to be followed. They are ambiguous or symbolic.
This is why the Vedas have often been misinterpreted even by learned scholars of reputation. Unfortunately, some of the Western philosophers have not done justice to the Vedas. Many of them failed to understand them correctly and presented distorted views on several counts. Some of the Indian scholars have been influenced by their Western counterparts.
On the other hand, Dayananda Saraswati , Shri Aurobindo and others have challenged the Westerners and made great efforts to re-evaluate the Vedas. One may now remember that the Vedas could only be interpreted with the help of an elaborate explanation by an expert. Once understood thoroughly, they open up new vistas of knowledge and radically transform life.
The meaning of the word "Veda"
The word ‘Veda’ is interpreted in more than one ways by different scholars. Swami Dayananda Saraswati has brought out four diverse meanings of the word. Thus, the word ‘Veda’ can be defined in more than one ways.
The word ‘Veda’ originates from the Sanskrit root Vid. The Sanskrit verb ‘Vid’ means ‘to know’. The word ‘Veda’ literally means knowledge. The Veda is concerned with “knowledge par excellence”. When the man was in a primitive stage enveloped in darkness, the philosophy of the Veda was the unprecedented glow of knowledge. The knowledge which transformed a prakrit man to a Sanskrit man is the Veda.
The word ‘Veda’ means ‘to be’. It is concerned with astitva - the existence. That which creates awareness in a man about his own existence is the Veda.
One of the interpretations of the word ‘Veda’ is ‘to think’. The word ‘Veda’ is suggestive of ‘thought’. Thinking awakens discretion in a man’s mind. It makes a man wise and judicious. The knowledge which helps to distinguish between Sat and Asat is the Veda.
The word ‘Veda’ also refers to accomplishment. The knowledge which helps a man in realizing his supreme goal is the Veda.