The Truth About The Vedas

Vedas are the holiest books of the Hindus. They belong to such a hoary past that most of us feel very far away from them. Many intervening ages, many battles, many invasions, many epochal changes later, we have almost no recollection of what they are! Are Vedas written by ancient sages? Do they talk about many Devas or gods? Or do they preach monotheism? There are so many flavours of Hinduism today – which one truly represents the Vedas? Many such questions abound in the minds of ordinary people. Let us try to clear up some of these.

If we look at the slow demise of the knowledge of the Vedas and the Vaidika Dharma, we find that the first big blow came at the time of the Mahabharata when there was great destruction of not only life and property, but also knowledge. Many Brahmanas were killed at that time and there was a sudden shortfall of teachers and students. In the Mahabharata itself, we find many misdemeanours being committed by the likes of Bheema, Dronacharya, Dhritarashtra, etc., who were supposed to set an example for others. These are early indications of the rot that set in the system later. Slowly, knowledge declined and ritualism set in. Brahmanas tried to cling to their positions, that they should have lost as they were no longer learned, by restricting the study of the Vedas. Shudras were excluded, women were excluded, even the other Varnas were disallowed from studying or chanting certain portions. The reign of these duplicitous Brahmanas became so oppressive that it lead to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. Shankaracharya was instrumental in bringing Hinduism back into the reckoning at a time when these two religions had spread over vast tracts of the country.

Muslim invasions started about 1000CE and the destruction they caused saw further neglect of Vaidika studies. Under the Vijayanagar kings of the South a last ditch effort was made to bring these texts back to life under Sayanacharya, who wrote detailed commentaries on most of the Vaidika lore. However, the arrival of the British lead to a near total destruction of the Indian education system and old ways of learning were replaced by Western methods. Not only that, Western scholars, like Max Mueller, Griffith, Macdonald, started studying and writing commentaries on the Vedas. They relied heavily on Sayana but had an ulterior motive to denigrate the Indian value system. With Western education, culture and values gaining ground, the death knell was sounded for ancient Indian texts and values. Today, the Vaidika way of life has all but died…

Given this perspective, it is hardly surprising that currently a number of misconceptions abound regarding the Vedas and the knowledge they contain. I am giving below some of the major ones and the truth regarding them.

The Vedas Preach Nature Worship

It is said that the Vedas have specified a number of gods (Devas) that exist in Swarga under the leadership of Indra, like Agni, Vayu, etc. However, this assertion is far from the truth. The first verse of the Rgveda begins with – अग्निमीडे पुरोहितं, i.e., I pray to Agni who arises first. Here, it may seem that the prayer refers to fire, while in fact the word Agni refers to God the enlightener and the remover of the darkness of ignorance. That there is only one God who is referred to by many names is declared by the Vedas themselves –

इन्द्रं मित्रं वरुणमग्निमाहुरथो दिव्यः सः सुपर्णो गरुत्मान् ।

एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्त्यग्निं यमं मातरिश्वानमाहुः ॥ऋग्वेदः १।१६४।४६॥

That is, though He is one, the learned call Him by many names, for example, Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Maatrishwaa. Such an assertion is contained in many Vaidika mantras. 

In fact, all things are denoted by many names in the Vedas. This is because the words used there are Yaugika, being derived from the meanings of their parts, rather than having meanings derived from the whole (Laukika). In Vaidika words, the verb roots, the prefixes and suffixes determine what the word means. Thus, one of the meanings of Agni is the enlightener. Another meaning is the one that comes first. Both these meanings obviously apply to God. They also apply to the material fire as it is used to remove darkness and because it is lighted first in the Yajna-vedi. Now, which meaning is to be taken where depends on the context. Also, the particular word will be used when the Vedas want to highlight a particular quality.

Thus, the Vedas talk of only one God and there is no Satan to thwart Him, or other divine beings that help Him.

The Vedas detail only Rituals

Yes, it is true that today Vaidika mantras, where used, are only used in the context of rituals. However, this is due to our lack of knowledge, and not due to any fault of the Vedas! Here’s a Vaidika mantra that should put paid to this theory –

ऋचो अक्षरे परमे व्योमन् यस्मिन्

देवा अधि विश्वे निषेदुः ।

यस्तन्न वेद किमृचा करिष्यति

य इत् तद्विदुस्त इमे समासते ॥ऋग्वेदः १।१६४।३९, अथर्ववेदः ९।१०।१८॥

That is, the Vaidika mantras propound that the Universe resides in that one, indestructible God. If anyone studies the Vedas, but does not learn about Him, then what can he achieve by those Vaidika mantras? That is, all the knowledge in the Vedas centres around telling us about this great entity; the rest is all subsidiary knowledge.

Actually, the Vedas are the fount of all knowledge that allows humans to attain their full potential. Thus, there are verses that detail not only ethics, but more mundane things like the decimal system of counting, usage of electricity, brief design of engines, planes and ships, etc. etc. This knowledge has largely been lost over the ages, but what remains is still substantial and useful in our lives.

The Vedas describe Animal Sacrifice

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Vedas preach non-violence not only towards human beings but the animal kingdom as a whole, and not only the animal kingdom but also Nature as a whole. It tells us to use the wealth of the planet with care, otherwise the planet will take revenge for its abuse. We are seeing this today, in these ‘Coronavirus times’, when the extreme milking of our planet, our reprehensible wastage of its resources on a daily basis and the tremendous pollution we have caused has led to many diseases and suffering all around.

So, What are the Vedas and What do they Contain?

Vedas are a set of four books that are the direct word of God. They appeared in their final form to four Rshis at the beginning of human creation on this planet: Rgveda to Sage Agni, Yajurveda to Sage Vayu, Samaveda to Sage Aditya and Atharvaveda to Sage Angira. Thus, the Vedas are Apauresheya – not the work of Man. The four sages in turn taught them to Sage Brahma. Since then an unbroken line of seers has kept the wisdom alive. As mentioned earlier, since the time of the Mahabharata, there has been a continuous decline in this knowledge. However, efforts are on to revive it again today.

The most important message of the Vedas for mankind is to make it aware of the presence of a God and a set of rules that He has laid down for us to show us how to live our lives. These are collectively called Dharma. Some of these rules we can feel inside ourselves, and so we find them across cultures, e.g., doing good to other human beings. But there are many other values that are only known from the Vedas, e.g., performing Yajnas to detoxify the environment. While some values that were taught by the Vedas, like taking care of the environment and other creatures on the planet, are now being discovered at a great cost to mankind, the value of others like Yajna are yet to be discovered. If one looks at other cultures that have come up without any association with India, e.g., the aborigines of Australia, one realises how difficult these concepts are for the human race to discover by itself. In this way, God has given humans, the only really intelligent species on the planet, a headstart in living a meaningful life by means of the Vedas.

Another teaching that is undiscoverable on its own – by reasoning or otherwise – is that of the re-incarnation of the Soul. As a consequence of this principle, arise the Laws of Karma and Moksha. The Law of Karma explains how performing deeds according to Dharma leads to happiness, and the opposite to sorrow. Accordingly, the next birth is also determined by the balance of deeds – more good deeds leading to a higher birth, more bad deeds leading to a lower birth. Given the infinite cycle of birth and death that is re-incarnation, it also stands to reason that there must be an escape from it. This is called Moksha, or salvation. Moksha is where the Soul is no longer bound to a material body and enjoys its pure existence, devoid of material happiness and sorrows. It is only fair that God give us this knowledge upfront, for it governs the consequences we face. Just as the constitution of India and the various other codes of law lay down what is considered right or wrong by the government, thus giving the citizens a heads up on the consequences of their actions, so also God has told us upfront that these acts will lead to good results and these to bad. Now, it is up to us to lead a Dharmika life or not!

A Wholesome Vaidika Prayer

In the end, let us learn a Vaidika prayer that incorporates all the good things that we could pray for in our day-to-day lives –

                        ओ३म् इन्द्र श्रेष्ठानि द्रविणानि धेहि

                                    चित्तिं दक्षस्य सुभगत्वमस्मे ।

                        पोषं रयीणामरिष्टिं तनूनां

                                    स्वादमानं वाचः सुदिनत्वमह्नाम् ॥ऋग्वेदः २।२१।६॥

That is, O Indra, Lord of Wealth (i.e., God only)! Please grant us the best of wealth (i.e., may we attain this wealth by Dharmika means), the expertise of an expert (i.e., may we try and become experts at our jobs, whatever they may be), good fortune, the well-being generated by wealth (i.e., may we not squander our wealth on drugs and such bad habits), good health of our bodies, pleasant speech and goodness of days. 

This is such an all-encompassing prayer that we should all try to incorporate this in our daily prayers.