Vedic Age

We may now look at the Vedic age, which had, in many ways, a decisive influence on the trend of Indian culture.  Of course, the requirements of modern life have changed many Indian customs and the elaborate sacrifices (yajna) of which the Vedas speak gradually became less important after the Vedic age.  Indeed it is the doctrine of ahinsa (non-violence and non-hatred) of the heretic sects such as the Jainas and the Buddhists, which gained respect later.  There are other non-Vedic notions to be found in Hinduism today, such as the worship of Shakti, the Vaishnava approach through devotion or bhakti, and ideas of asceticism, renunciation, and continence, but the Hindu nevertheless persists in thinking of [one’s] religion as being according to the Vedas and in looking upon the Vedas as the embodiment of revealed literature.

 By the Vedas we generally mean the Vedic Sanhitas, which are collections of prayers and ritual formulae.  Their main heroes are the gods and the recurring motive of their worshippers is propitiation.  The so-called ‘way of works’ (karma vidhi) is a way of pleasing the celestial governors of human destiny.  In the course of time, rituals grew and multiplied whose meaning only the experts knew.  Possibly the later search for the ways of knowledge(jnana) and devotion(bhakti) began in a dissatisfaction with this elaborate ritualism of the Vedic religion.  The birth of the Upanishads, with their emphasis on knowledge and meditation, and the Bhakti literature, with its emphasis on love and adoration, were revolts against the formalism of the Vedic system….

 The Vedic Aryans were divided into different groups, but they were held together by a common worship of their gods and by their ordering of religious observance.  In their view, [one’s] life was in the hands of the gods, to be killed or raised to a status with their own.  The correct performance of sacrifices brought earthly increase and an assured comfort in the heavens above, the ideal of Vedic [life].  It is only in the Atharvaveda that one hears of men along with the gods and the heavens.  This may be one of the reasons why the orthodox have always frowned upon the Atharvaveda; it contains references to many non-Vedic influences, such as the prayers of the outcastes (Vratyas) who opposed sacrifices.

 There are four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva.  The oldest and most important of these is the Rigveda….  Of the different recensions only has come down to us, which consists of 1,028 hymns divided into eight or ten books.  The Atharva may be mentioned next in order of importance.  It contains a large number of magical formulae and contains definite pre-Vedic influences.  Atharva literally means the Fire Priest.  Many of its verses are also found in the Rigveda.  Some of the mantras do not seem to be heavily endowed with spiritual meaning, but from time to time one comes across utterances of very considerable sophistication which elevate the character of the entire anthology and make one feel that there is clearly more in it than meets the eye….

 The Sama contains a large number of [Rig] mantras.  These mantras used to be sung and there are instructions for the tunes.  The Yagurveda deals mainly with works of sacrifice and is divided into two parts.  Most of the Vedas had various divisions and subdivisions, not all of which have survived, partly because they were long transmitted by word of mouth.

 On the time of the composition of the Vedas, opinions differ.  Modern scholars do not consider them as ancient as the majority of Indians have done so far.  Winternitz thought the Vedas belonged to a period stretching from 2500 B.C. to 7000 B.C., but most scholars today would certainly put the origin at a date later than 2500 B.C.  In a document of about 1300 B.C., the Mitannian king Mattiuaza is found invoking the gods Mitra, Varuna, and Indra of the Hindu pantheon; so the roots of the Vedas certainly stretch at least to the middle of the second millennium B.C.  It may be mentioned in passing that religiously-minded people often have little interest in fixing the date or the age of their beliefs.  More than the history it is the revelation itself that interests the Hindu.

 Most of the Vedic gods are taken from nature: the sun, the moon, fire, sky, storm, air, water, dawn, rain, and so on.  Indra, the god of rain and thunder, seems to have enjoyed a greater importance than others.  The hymns to the gods contain some wonderful pieces of poetry.  They even include abstract notions such as sky and space deified into Prajapati and Varuna.  Varuna later changed into the god of good and evil, of the right law, Prajapati became the one Lord of all creation, the force than runs the world.  Even Faith was deified.  The hymns to Night and to the Forest show, besides the spiritual significance that may be attached to these largely esoteric writings, an extraordinary sensitivity to the beauties of the physical universe.  The hymns to Usha (dawn) and Vak (speech) are equally marvellous as poetry.

 The Rishis were fully aware of the importance of the subtle and the abstract.  The Atharva contains hymns to Life and Time.  Similar consciousness of the abstract is seen in the hymn to Vak (speech) referred to earlier.  One of the Vedic mantras that forms part of the daily worship of the Hindus is the Gayatri Mantra (Rigveda, 3, 62, 10).  Its main theme is: “We contemplate and adore the knowledge and power of the World-Creator who infuses the intellectual faculties in us.”

 Yajna was the chief method of sacrifice.  The performance centered around a sacrificial fire and offerings were thrown into it.  On the very rare occasion, offerings were thrown into water.  The offerings consisted of materials of which the owner was fond and very often included things like butter, milk, meat, grains cooked in milk, intoxicating drinks, and other such items….

 There are some differences of opinion on the purpose of the yajnas.  First, yajnas can be looked upon as the methods of pleasing gods by giving them parts of one’s wealth.  Secondly, yajnas can stand for token offerings made to gods to indicate obedience and allegiance.  Finally, quite irrespective of the gods, the sacrifices can be looked upon as methods of practising renunciation.  There can be little doubt that the yajnas began as methods of pleasing gods, and that their significance changed with time until integration with renunciation and other ideas of later Hindu philosophy was eventually achieved.

 Gradually the idea of monotheism began to grow around Prajapati and Varuna.  The Vedas declare: “He is one, (though) wise men call Him by many names”(Rigveda, 21, 164, 46).  The Mahabharata declares all Vedas to be one and the same.  The Truth is one; it is our ignorance that divides it {emphasis added}.  The Supreme is not merely an architect but a creator, and He creates out of himself.  The universe is born of His delight.  This idea of an infinite being projecting Himself in many names and forms is first mentioned in the Samhitas and later elaborated in the Upanishads.  The Supreme is not bound by His creation, for  His nature is freedom.  The world is an expression of his play (lila), His delight.  We are parts of That.  This identification of the Atman (self) with the Brahman (the Supreme){bold added} is expressed in the Upanishads as a message to all [people], “Tat tvam asi,” “Thou are That.”  The object of human life, according to this view, becomes unity with the Source.  While this idea is developed fully in the Upanishads, it is in the Vedic Samhitas that one meets it first.  If we look down the centuries the Vedas stand out as the origin of much that is noteworthy in Hinduism.*^

*Sen, K.M. Hinduism.1961. London, England. Penguin Books. pp 45-49.

^ all footnotes have been omitted and some modifications of the transliteration of the Sanskrit have been made.