Friday, December 01, 2006

Vedas - Introduction

Indian tradition, however, has held the Vedas all along in the highest reverence, it has invested them with the authority of a revealed scripture, Books of Wisdom. Notwithstanding all the centuries-old efforts at such debunkings, the Vedas stand firm as a rock towering like the snow-capped peaks of Kailas overtopping and overlooking the vast panoramic expanse below, drawing its nourishment every moment from the ceaseless streams that flow from above-the huge and hoary expanse of Indian life and culture. What is the secret that has enabled the Vedas to hold the pre-eminent position they have occupied from the beginnings of time in this country? Is there anything in them which is valuable for man as to exact respect and reverence to the extent they have done? And if the Vedas are really so valuable and so sacred, why is it that they have become the targets of so much criticism? Why is it that the Vedas are today so much enveloped in misunderstanding and condemnation that they are in danger of being completely lost to sight?

And what, in the first place, is the Veda?
The Vedās are the only extant records of the lives and expressions of our forefathers of an age upon the time-limits of which scholars and historians have been unable to agree with any degree of finality. Indian scholars like Tilak and Europeans like Jacobi are inclined to date the period from Four to Six millenniums before the Christian era while other Western scholars have a strong tendency to advance the date to as near the Christian era as possible. Be that as it may, it is the songs and chants of these fathers of the race—purve pitarah—, it is their hymns that form the starting point and the kernel for the vast literature that has flowed from and developed round them and goes by the name VEDA. At some period of their history, very likely at the close of the epoch during which the hymns were first sung and celebrated, it was found necessary to collect and compile all the available hymns current at that time. The necessity for the compilation may have arisen in order to prevent their loss inevitable with the passage of time and also to preserve them in the form in which they were chanted. Tradition has it that they were compiled under the direction of that Master compiler of the Great Age—Vyasa. Certainly what have been compiled do not exhaust all the hymns that must have been current; the compilations represent the remnants that had survived the ravages of time and were still extant at the time of the compilation. These hymnal texts had been handed down from mouth to mouth and it was inevitable that they must have suffered diminution in quantity with each generation.
The hymns were collected and arranged in four different compilations, Samhitās, each collection being governed by different considerations about the nature of the hymns, the purpose for which they were compiled, etc. Thus hymns which were largely in the nature of prayers and dedications to Gods were collected—says the tradition—by Paila under the guidance of Vyasa, and went to form the Rik mantra Samhita. Hymns which were particularly chanted during religious and social functions of the community were compiled by Vaishampayana under the title Yajus mantra Samhita. Jaimini is said to have collected hymns that were set to music and melody—Saman. There is also the fourth collection of hymns and chants ascribed to Sumantu, known as Atharva Samhita. We need not dwell upon the subject of the Atharva mantra Samhita and the controversy around it but recognize the Vedic tradition as has come down to us which includes all the four Samhitās in its fold.
Each of these Samhitās was followed gradually by explanations and dissertations in prose and in verse for elucidating the meanings, allusions, legends, etc. of the hymns and their application. These portions are known as Brāhmaņās. The concluding portions of these or the portions attached to them are discussions and speculations of a philosophical and spiritual import based certainly on the ideas and texts found in the Hymns. They are called the Āraņyakās and Upanishads. Each Veda thus comprises the Mantra Samhita, the Brāhmaņās, the Āraņyakās and the Upanishads.

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