The Vedic scriptures
The Veda is understood by simply accepting what the Veda says about itself. This Vedic self-understanding may be amazing or even unbelievable to the modern reader, but the different opinions about the origin and history of the Vedic scriptures are due to a fundamental difference in world views between the followers of the Veda and modern mundane scholars.
According to the indological world view, "Vedic scripture" doesn't even exist. Modern Indology says that the collection of books mentioned in this article is not a consistent body of knowledge but a mere accumulation of texts from different sources. Indology claims that they were written over a long period, starting after the hypothetical Aryan invasion into the Indian subcontinent, about 1000 to 1500 B.C., when the mixture of tribes formed a "Vedic" culture. If we believe this scenario, then it is natural to think that the Indian scriptures are a mass of unsystematic, mythological texts.
The Vedic scriptures maintain a completely different version -- one of ancient cultures, timeless revelations, and divine incarnations. The entire body of Vedic knowledge has a systematic structure and a clearly-defined goal, being compiled by Vedic rishis (sages) headed by Vyasadeva. About 5000 years ago these sages systematically wrote down this knowledge to prevent it from being lost in the upcoming Kali-yuga, the Iron Age, the most fallen in the cycle of ages.
The structure of the Vedic scriptures can be compared to a staircase with many steps, with specific scriptures corresponding to each step. The Vedic scriptures describe both the goal and the steps leading up to this goal. They are nonsectarian because they respect people of all "steps," encouraging everyone to progress to the next step. There is no converting or pushing, because everyone has to walk for himself. As the Vedic saying goes, "Even in a flock of birds, each bird has to fly for itself."
Individual evolution is not limited to one life. The Vedic understanding of reincarnation declares that the steps of this symbolical staircase can also be understood as lifetimes. The almost proverbial "Hindu" tolerance is based on a solid philosophical understanding and shouldn't be confused with merging, indifference, or "everything is one."
Superficially, the Vedic scriptures may appear to be unsystematic and even contradictory, but this impression can easily be reconciled by finding out how each step is connected with the goal.
Known as Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva, the four Vedas are usually labeled as the original Vedic scriptures. Rig means ritual, and this Veda contains mainly hymns and prayers (mantras) for the worship of the universal forces known as the demigods. Yajur means ceremony, and this Veda mainly describes how to perform the rituals. Sama means singing, and this Veda contains many other mantras and strict rules how to chant these mantras according to mystic vibrations. Atharva means the priest who knows the secret lore, and this Veda describes many different kinds of worship and invocations. In a broader sense, the Atharva also includes scriptures of material knowledge, like the Ayur-Veda (pharmacology and health).
The purpose of these teachings is to encourage one to understand that one is not an independent entity but a part of a universal body that depends on many higher forces. The most important lesson from these four Vedas is to accept higher authorities. By linking up with the divine forces through ritual and understanding, one profits materially and experiences peace and harmony.
Not everybody is inclined to follow the methods of the Vedas, which demand strictness, purity, faith, and patience. Impatient, ignorant people demand instant results, and these can be obtained by magic, ghost worship, etc. By providing such knowledge, the Vedic scriptures encourage the faith of occultists, so that one day or one lifetime, they may develop interest in the higher aspects of the Veda. Such works are in the modes of passion and ignorance.
Woven into the four Vedas are philosophical discussions called the Aranyakas and Brahmanas. The most significant of these are the Upanisads ("sitting beneath," i.e. knowledge obtained from a spiritual teacher). These texts show that all material forms are temporary manifestations of an eternal energy beyond material duality. They show the oneness behind the variety and inspire those absorbed in the rituals of the Vedas to go beyond their short-term goals.
To provide a common ground of argument for all philosophical schools, the 560 condensed aphorisms of the Vedanta-sutra define the Vedic truths in the most general terms. Therefore the commentaries to the Vedanta-sutras are voluminous.
These are the historical works, mainly the Ramayana (the history of the incarnation Rama), the 18 Puranas and 18 Sub-puranas (the universal history of creation and annihilation, incarnations and great kings, saints and teachers), and the Mahabharata (the history of ancient India, or Bharata, up to the appearance of Krishna five thousand years ago). These scriptures are essential because they expand the understanding of the Absolute beyond the abstract, impersonal platform. The Absolute is supremely perfect and complete, which is why it is both impersonal and personal. But the personal aspect is the original source of the secondary impersonal existence of the Lord, since an impersonal energy cannot be the source of persons. The Itihasas reveal this personal feature, gradually introducing and identifying it, culminating in the purely monotheistic revelations of the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.
The Vedic scriptures designate these sacred texts as the most important, essential revelations. They directly describe the nature, energy, and person of God, who is both the immanent (as Vishnu) and transcendent (as Krishna) source of everything, the cause of all causes, of both the impersonal and personal manifestations. Bhagavad-gita ("the song of God") are the words spoken by God, and Srimad-Bhagavatam ("Divine Revelation") are the words about God spoken by His representatives.
This implicit structure of the Vedic scriptures sheds new light on the entire Vedic tradition and deserves closer examination. But the goal of these scriptures is to lead us to the Supreme, and it is not sufficient merely to study them theoretically. They imply practical consequences. Mere academic study of the Vedic scriptures can be compared to reading a cookbook or a musical composition. If we don't come to the point of actually cooking or playing, we will have missed the goal.
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