The Veda is regarded as the Holy Scriptures associated with the Hindu religion, but the nature of its teachings is very different from other popular religious scriptures. To answer succinctly: “What are the Vedas?”, we ought to say that they are the backbone of the entire Hindu culture, also called Vedic tradition. Its vision pervades all branches of knowledge and religious and spiritual practices of India, which has influenced many other cultures present today.
The Vedas, through its verses, called mantras, are behind many religious and spiritual practices. Words in Sanskrit, which is the original language of the Vedas, appear in several terms in the spiritual world. It is said, for example, that the very word “Jesus” is derived from the word “Ishu” – “one who rules”, which changed over time. The term “OM”, which appears at the beginning of many mantras, even of Buddhist or Tibetans ones, has its origin in the Vedas. The term karma, which we use to speak about destiny, also comes from the Vedas, but it does not mean something entirely negative. And, even things of everyday life, such as the beer Brahma, have its origin in the Vedas and ironically Brahma is described as being associated with the number “one”.
To understand the Vedas, let us analyze their origin, nature and purpose.
As for the nature or content, contrary to what many people may think, they are not a means to propagate religion or belief, its purpose is to be a means of knowledge for issues that humans cannot figure out by themselves. They demonstrate the “cause and effect” relation between various actions and rituals in order to provide humanity with ways to get what one desires. They do not establish a doctrine, commandments, beliefs or ways of thinking. People adopt values and a lifestyle through this tradition because of an interest in its results, which is usually a healthier, more balanced life. There are various types of rituals: a ritual to have a child, another for the success of an enterprise, and even one to have a good rebirth after this life is over. In the field of “medicine”, it provides knowledge about the energy of our body and its interaction with food and medicine, which is called Ayurveda. They also analyze the impact of the movement of celestial bodies taking into account the date and place of birth, which we call astrology, but in the Vedic tradition it is called Jyotisam.
It is a set of knowledge available to humanity whose branches stretch through several fields: medicine with ayurveda, dance with natyashastra, rituals to satisfy desires with tantra, organizing a home with vastushastra, martial arts with kalaripayattu, health and energy exercises with yoga ásanas, meditations with upasanas, self-knowledge with vedanta, poetry with kavyam and even singing, food, astrology, management and many other topics.
Therefore, as per its nature, the Vedas and the tradition that surrounds it is a means of knowledge that pervades all aspects of society, revealing the subtle connections present in the universe.
Since its nature is connected with the satisfaction of human desires, the purpose of the Vedas derives from the insight of the reality of those desires. The Vedas state that despite the fact that we desire in many different ways, all these desires are caused by a feeling of inadequacy, which is rooted in the ignorance of the “self”. By not knowing our true nature, and errantly identifying it with the body and mind, we judge ourselves to be small and limited, which brings us to a number of desires in an attempt to become complete.
When we analyze how we try to fill this “void”, we realize that our actions are not effective. We are trying to control situations and people, and to acquire ever more objects in order to be free and at peace, but it is not possible to control situations – people change, objects come and go and even if everything had been perfect, our tastes and desires also change.
This apparent enigma is solved by the Vedas upon stating that the individual is already complete and already has everything that is necessary to be happy. Contrary to our way of thinking, the puzzle is not a question of missing pieces: people do not have to change, the country does not have to move forward, and it is not necessary to pay the debt with the bank in order to be at peace.
Although this perspective seems challenging – or even contrary to our experience – it indeed has a reality. Do we not sometimes find ourselves in joyous moments, laughing at nothing, as if there were no tomorrow, despite all our problems? The very fact that these moments exist make it impossible to deny that happiness available, and simply ignore such a possibility. This perception is built slowly, and the person who is in touch with the tradition discovers more inner space behind every activity, has a better relationship with people, their emotions and begins the project to discover his/her own free and complete nature, which is called self-knowledge.
This vision of guiding the individual through all the paths of his/her mind to uncover its free nature is at the heart of the Vedas. At the same time that the means to acquire the objects are exposed, they are followed by this vision, which make them more valuable, because they are able to prepare the individual for the journey to self-knowledge. And, once a person develops enough interest to get to know him- or herself, the Vedas are ready to directly transmit the knowledge of the “self”. The section of the Vedas responsible for transmitting this knowledge is called Vedanta, which literally means the final part of the Vedas.
The self-knowledge that comes from that study with the aid of a teacher, according to what is prescribed in the Vedas, is the culmination of all the knowledge available in this tradition, because it acts directly on the fundamental problem of being happy. The Vedas propose that the idea of alienation, injustice and suffering that we feel and fight against are just a notion that can be corrected using an appropriate tool. This is the proposal of the Vedas and the Vedic tradition. Within the tradition, the lifestyle that prepares the body, the mind and the individual as a whole for this journey is what is truly called Yoga.
Therefore, as for its purpose, the Vedas have a vision in mind, which is to prepare people for self-knowledge, even if the person is directly interested in a material object, the Vedas give the means to get it and in the process will make the person mature in his/her quest for happiness.
However, given our western habit of dividing and categorizing, it is very common to separate the fields that make up the knowledge of the Vedas, and by doing so we lose the vision that is behind all these activities and that gives them purpose.
Just look at how Yoga (as a postural exercise) spreads around the world to understand what happens when you take an activity of the tradition to which it belongs. Yoga, which aims to prepare the mind and body for self-knowledge, has become for many just another type of workout, “an alternative to Pilates”. While it may indeed be a good exercise alternative, it simply does not match up to its higher purpose. Without the connection to the Vedic tradition, the practice of Yoga postures or any other activity may not be wrong per se, but is most definitely underused, or incomplete. If we bought a car just to use the trunk, would that not be a waste? The dance, food, exercises and music all these areas of the tradition were designed to transform a person’s life, to take the individual out of his/her daily rat-race to try to get first place in the world, and to make that person available to him- or herself. Tradition is the beauty of all these activities, without it everything becomes one more option on our menu.
Any of these activities of the tradition is sustained in the Vedas and are connected to each other. All begin with a mantra and every mantra begins with OM. There will always be some devotion involved, a meditative state and a vision that permeates all of them. If we listen, for example, to any Indian classical music, it will talk about the relationship between creator and creature, and it will have a rhythm that is conducive to processing emotions and surrendering. Together these activities become a “divine therapeutic process”, but when separated only the result of the direct material involved can be obtained.
The disassociation with Vedic tradition also generates other problems, many factions, lines, groups and ultimately much debate. When there is no tradition, anyone can say whatever he or she wants. Who can really establish a truth about a subject, when its origin is unknown? After all, everyone has the same right to express his or her opinion. However, when we see Yoga or any of these activities as part of the Vedic tradition it is a different story. In order to read the Vedas or enter any part of this tradition, we first need a teacher who has not learned alone, then we need to learn Sanskrit, mantras, and there is also a lot of meditation involved, which is crucial in this process. And this “package” is not something you get as a result of a trip to India, or by knowing a great teacher, or through an overnight divine blessing and it is not something that someone can invent. The tradition is the result of lives of dedication of various masters and disciples, we just dive into it.
During the journey, we can meet many masters, but before they were masters all of them were students. The great masters and sages are just people who had some role, receiving or relaying what came to them. Sometimes we hear names like Vyasa (known for being the first to write and document the Vedas) or Shankara (known for defending the vision of the Vedas which was almost lost in his time), who had such remarkable roles that we think they are the authors of these teachings, but they are just names of teachers who belong to this chain, and they are often used to represent the whole tradition.
The tradition of teaching is like a river, it flows through people. Its origin is not marked by the opinion of a particular teacher or group. It is said that even the Rishis, who received them in meditation, do not claim to be the authors of anything, quite the contrary they say, “And so I was told…” Knowledge of the Vedas does not belong to anyone, it is given by the creator to humanity. Therefore, as for its origin, we say that the author is the creator, which after all is the author of all karmic and subtle laws that comprise the Vedas.
As opposed to what we are accustomed, the Vedas are not a book that was written by someone on a certain date from which we can trace a history and time. The Vedas do not have a description of the history of a person with special features, or describe particular peoples, its teachings are timeless. They have been transmitted orally from master to disciple and it is still that way today. Even if there are publications, the use of mantras depends on people trained to chant them properly and so they keep their secularity and original form. Thus it is not possible to determine its origin in time, due to the absence of historical events or peoples, or a particular culture associated with them and since the tradition is oral it is not possible to evaluate the manuscripts. Despite that, they are the oldest manuscripts of humanity dating back to 2000 BC.
The Vedas have survived millennia with humanity. It is said that they are revealed to the Rishis, sages who received these verses at the beginning of creation or whenever it is necessary – just like any other knowledge of the universe, such as mathematics or physics. The only difference is that the receipt of this knowledge is the product of a mental clarity that arises from the practice of austerities (physical and mental disciplines) and not from the development of the intellectual process as in the case of science.
Thus, as for the origin, the Vedas have come along with humanity, its knowledge is timeless and therefore the author is the Creator himself, like any other knowledge of cause and effect of this universe, although it is not scientific because it is not the result of experiments and logic.
Thus, as per its nature, the Vedas present the subtle relationships that cannot be perceived by the human being; its purpose is to conduct the vision of the individual as complete, self-knowledge; and its origin is timeless, they are manifests in the mind of the wise when there is preparation for such, anyone who practices the disciplines is able to receive them.
Although there are several religious lines in India hitching a ride on the tradition, the Vedas are neither a religion nor does it have a religious proposal, since its vision is not of the individual “sinner” who needs to be saved, or who was abandoned by God. That is why it does not have a formal organization or institution like a church. This tradition is carried from person to person, its characteristic is a free religion without “religion”. God is free of all forms and all forms are seen as divine. It does not matter the name, the language, if the intention and attitude are right, what prayer will not be heard by Him? This is the reason why the tradition itself is filled with stories and different ways to worship.
This view of life, God and the individual is the spirit of Hindu culture. Despite the poverty and social hardship inherent in a country of billions, people smile and welcome you. Unlike the rest of the planet, where the symbol of the social leader is a well dressed person, in a car of the year, with a gold watch and sunglasses; in the land of the Vedas the social symbol is the famous “Mahatma Gandhi”, with no makeup, simple clothes, a simple life, with work and content. This is the view of the Vedas and the Vedic tradition, a vision of contentment in oneself, a non-dependent happiness, where the individual sees himself complete, not alienated from the whole. A vision where the “self” is the very meaning of the word happiness.
This is a video showing some kids who are learning the Vedas traditionally in a study process that takes 11 years. Here they sing the famous Medha Suktam, mantra for mind and memory, in the presence of Swami Dayananda.
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