THE VEDIC AGE
One of the most confusing and contradictory aspects of Hinduism is its plethora of Gods, rituals and apparently conflicting doctrines. This has been the plank used by critics of Hinduism and which when adeptly articulated leaves even the most devout and practicing Hindu wallowing in self-doubt. This is a unique problem because no other religion whether occidental or oriental has anything remotely similar to this.
Undoubtedly Hinduism is one of the most complex religions basically on account of two reasons. One it is one of the oldest religion, and second it is organic and constantly evolving over time. This also explains its durability because when old religions of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, have all faded away. Hinduism continues to exist.
To understand Hinduism we have to trace its evolution, particularly the Vedic period, because Vedas happen to be the sacred books of the Hindus. Normally the ancient period in India’s cultural history is considered to be from 2000 BCE to 1000 CE, which is categorized as follows:
1. The Vedic period (2000 BCE – 560 BCE)
2. The Age of the Vedangas and Kalpasutras (500 BCE – 200 BCE)
3. The Age of the Epics (200 BCE – 300 CE)
4. The Age of the Puranas, Agamas and Darshanas (300 CE – 650 CE)
5. The Age of the Later Puranas, Agamas and Darshanas ( 650 CE – 1000 CE)
The Vedic period is normally considered to have lasted from 2000 BCE to 560 BCE. During this period many religious works were produced which can be categorized under three groups.
- The Age of the Mantras
- The Age of the Brahmanas
- The Age of the Upanishads.
THE AGE OF THE MANTRAS
Aryans were a semi-nomadic group who had over long periods of time migrated from one place to another. Though the origin of the Aryans is still hotly debated, one fact is that around 2000BCE they had settled on the banks of the fabled river Saraswati and later on the banks of the river Ganga.(Ganges). Being an agrarian society, which depended on the vagaries of season, they realized the importance of the sun, rain and wind, which they began to personify and deify in an attempt to appease them. This personification was the creation of the fertile mind of poets; and thus arose a plethora of Gods like Agni, Indra, Varuna etc. But behind this flight of poetic imagination was a craving to understand the forces that knit all. In fact there is a verse in the early Rig Veda which voices this is as follows: “…. that being is one which the wise call by various names as Agni, Yama and Matarisvan”. This resulted in a series of divinities emerging like Vishwakarman (Maker of Everything), Prajapati (Lord of All) Brahmanspati (Lord of devotion) Aditi etc. This was a period of intellectual and spiritual ferment, which is reflected, in the quick succession of divinities in the pantheon of Gods in supremacy and social acceptance. Max Mueller called this henotheism and believed it was a stage on the way to monotheism, but in reality monism was the essential quest. One of the noteworthy concepts, which evolved during this period, was the concept of Rita or order. The ancient Aryans placed great emphasis on this both at the cosmic and moral level. To ensure that this order prevailed Yajnas or sacrifices were performed. The quest for order is understandable when we realize that this was also a period of intense conflict for the Aryans who not only had to contend with aboriginals but also among themselves in the fertile plains of the Punjab. The great seers who contributed to the RIG VEDA SAMHITA, which is one of the oldest, were Atri, Bharadwaja, Gritsamada, Madhuchhandas, Vasishtha, Vamadeva, and Vishwamita.
THE AGE OF THE BRAHMANAS
Curiosity and quest for unity was characteristic of the Age of the Mantras, which petered out during the Age of the Brahmanas. By then rituals became widespread and complex with priests became indispensable and powerful. This was also the time the concept of four varnas (Brahman, Kshatriay, Vysia and Sudra) became entrenched paving the way for the emergence of caste system.. The other concept of the four Ashramas ( Brahmacharya, Grihastashrama, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa) too originated around this time . Amongst the Pantheon of Gods, Vishnu and Rudra gained popularity and Prajapati continued to be the Lord of all. Socially the notion of debt to God, Rishis and forefathers gained currency and on the whole more than philosophical speculation, rituals became important. In a way this was a period of intellectual stagnation. However the corpus of Vedas got divided into Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva . The accessories needed to study the Vedas were incorporated in the Vedangas and sage Aitareya produced the Brahamanas, which was a treatise on rituals. Atharva Veda, which is a collection of charms and spells, gained legitimacy and was inducted as part of the Vedas.
THE AGE OF THE UPANISHADS
Upanishads not only revived the inherent curiosity of the Age of the Mantras, but also introduced philosophical speculation of a very high order. The quest for the ultimate reality not only laid the foundations of Indian metaphysics but also fostered tolerance so rarely found in many religious doctrines. In fact in the 46th verse of the hymn Dirghatamas is found the following declaration EKAM SAD VIPRA BAHUDHA VADANTI (“The one Being (ekam sad) but the wise calls it by various names” is an excellent example of the accommodative spirit of the age and philosophy. Contemplation of the Absolute Brahaman replaced propitiating Prajapati and deliverance was through Jnana or knowledge rather than Yagna.or sacrifice. Amongst the 108 Upanishads, there are ten principal Upanishads and Bhagavat Geetha sums up the essence of these Upanishads. By this time the Law of Karma gained currency and became the fundamental base for not only Hinduism but later Jainism and Buddhism too. The goal was to attain Brahman and it was through Jnana or knowledge and not through rituals. There were no idols or temples nor any form of congregational worship. It was highly individualistic and esoteric and was naturally elitist and confined to a very few.
The popular belief is that the Vedas are of divine origin and is called ‘APAURUSEYA’. In fact according to Sayanacharya a celebrated commentator of Rig Veda and a brother of Madhavacharya , God created the whole universe out of the knowledge of the Vedas. The interesting aspect of the Vedas is that this vast corpus of verses was never written, and it was handed down over the centuries orally from one generation to the next. Listen to what Max Mueller has to say and his predictions: “The entire RIG VEDA containing ten books of hymns consisting of 1028 poems, 10,580 verses and more than 1, 53, 826 words had spread from mouth to mouth! The whole thing went from person to person only by memory…… if every MSS on the Rig Veda were lost, we should be able to able to recover it from the memory of the STROTRIYAS in India…I have had such students in my room at Oxford who not only could repeat these hymns, but who repeated them with the proper accent (for the Vedic Sanskrit accent has accents like Greek) nay, when looking through my printed edition of the RIG VEDA, could point out a misprint without the slightest hesitation. ……I doubt whether it will last much longer, and I always impress on my friends in India and therefore impress on those who will soon be settled as civil servants in India, the duty of trying to learn all that can still be learnt from those living libraries. Much ancient Sanskrit love will be lost for ever when that race of STROTRIYAS become extinct.” Fortunately this realization has resulted in recording, documenting and interpreting many of this and much of the Vedas have been the focus of study by linguists, Indologists and historians apart from priestly class who have been so far the sole transmitters of this esoteric learning..
All learning process in Vedic times starts with this invocation from the Upanishads, which is called the SHANTI MANTRA or Peace chants. I think it would not be out of place to conclude this hub with this:
Sanskrit version (in Roman script)
“Om saha nāvavatu
saha nau bhunaktu
saha vīryam karavāvahai
tejasvināvadhītamastu mā vidvisāvahai
OM śāntih śāntih śāntih”
“Om ! May He protect us both together; may He nourish us both together;
May we work conjointly with great energy,
May our study be vigorous and effective;
May we not mutually dispute (or may we not hate any).
Om ! Let there be Peace in me !
Let there be Peace in my environment !
Let there be Peace in the forces that act on me”
A VEDIC HYMN
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