As one of the oldest civilizations in the world, India has a wide plethora of knowledge to offer. While the number of seers and saints has diminished over the centuries, the wealth of experience and wisdom they had remains through the texts they passed down from teacher to student. As time passes along, the West world is increasingly looking to the East, dipping its feet into its ocean of wisdom. Modern science is making discoveries that the seers of long ago spoke of with the same or greater degree of precision and accuracy. The cosmos were mapped. Surgeries were being performed without the aid of computers and lasers. The vast botanical world, the properties and benefits of different herbs and plants was well understood.
The expanse of knowledge exists, the awareness of its existence, depth and quantity however is lacking. Unlike Christianity, Islam or Judaism, there is no one book, one text from which guidance is found. Over the course of time, countless texts were created, each with a different purpose. Together, they form the foundation of Hinduism. The following described the first three categorizations of texts.
The knowledgeable have called the Vedas “Shabd Brahma.” The power of the Vedas is such that through words, Brahma (Reality) can be understood.
There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sam Veda and Atharva Veda.
The Rig Veda is comprised mainly of the stutis and mantras in praise of various deities (Indra, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, etc).
The Yajur Veda contains the mantras and procedures for the performance yajnas (sacrifices). It has information on what the preparations for yajna are, the fruits of differents yajna, etc.
The Sama Veda is essentially the Rig Veda. The Sama Veda however provides information on how the mantras are to be chanted, giving fixed melodies for each mantra. The Sama Veda is considered the first text related to music.
The Atharva Veda talks about worldly things. It includes information on craftsmanship, medicine and tantra.
Each Veda is further divided into four sections:
- The Mantra Samhitas – the “collection” of mantras. It is often considered that the Mantra Samhita forms the proper Veda. The Mantra Samhita is generally for brahmacharis, those who not have families, those who do not have much to do with the world of maya.
- The Brahmanas – the technical guide. Descriptions on how and why to do yajna, etc. can be found in the Brahmana. Priests would perform the sacrifices and this section was a guide for priests or Brahmins, hence the name Brahmana.
- The Aranyakas – provides the analysis of yajna. This section is intended for sadhus, not for wordly people.
- The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also known as “Vedanta,” the end or conclusion of the Vedas. The Upanisads show the Ultimate Reality. It is the recording of the experiences of Reality by saints and seers. The Upanisads are intended for sanyasis, but there is not large different between those on the path of knowledge and sanyasis.
The Vedas are not books. Veda literally means “to know.” Another names for the Vedas is shruti or that which is heard because this wisdom was not transcribed but passed down orally. The Vedas are meant to be spoken in a highly systemized way using only three notes. Each syllable is read many times in various combinations, revealing its nature as it is spoken. The precise sequence of sounds is critical. The true meaning of the Vedas can only be found in the sequential progression of sound and silence, not in the literal translations.
It is said to understand the Vedas, one must not start with the Mantra Samhita, but from the Upanisads and make one’s way back to the Samhitas.
The Six Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas)
The Vedangas are six technical texts that are required to understand the Vedas.
- Siksha (pronunciation)
For centuries, the Vedas were not written down, but passed down orally as its meaning is realized in its recitation. The Vedas cannot be understood in its entirety, nor will its mantras bear fruits as described unless it is spoken as intended.
- Vyakarana (grammar)
Grammar can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Vyakarana details the correct grammar.
- Nirukti (etymology)
Etymology is the study of the history of language. Nirukti is the study of the origin of word.
- Chhandas (metre)
Everything is created of chandas or syllables. Different combinations produce different sets of vibrations and meanings. Chhandas is the study of Vedic metre.
- Jyotisha (astronomy/astrology)
As humans, we reside within the larger system of the cosmos. Changes in the cosmos affect a multitude of things, including human behaviour. Jyotisha details the planetary movements, the implications of such movement on individual and collective life, auspicious times for activities, etc.
- Kalpa (ritual)
Kalpa is manual for rituals relating to various topics including large scale sacrifices to domestic affairs such as births and marriages.
The Four Upavedas (following the Vedas)
The Vedas were followed by four texts, called the Upavedas, that describe different sciences and arts.
The four Upavedas are: Ayur-veda, Dhanur-veda, Gandharva-veda and Artha-veda.
The Ayurveda deals with the science of the body. A healthy body is needed for all work as all work must be done through the body. According to Ayurveda, the body is comprised of three elements Vata (air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (sky/land). Perfect balance of the elements results in a perfect balance. Any imbalance leads to ailments related to the element that is in excess.
Dhanur-veda literally means the Veda of the bow, but this Upaveda deals not only with archery, but the entire science of warfare. Dhanur-veda includes information on battle plans and formations, preparation and training of different arms of the military, etc. Every little detail about warfare can be found in the Dhanur-veda.
Gandharva-veda is the text for sangeet (music). A master of music is called a Gandharva. It is important to understand the meaning of the word sangeet. Literally translated as music, sangeet does not only include sound. Sangeet me
ans sam + geet, or the coming together of singing, playing and dance, thus the Gandharva-veda is a text for music and dance. The description of music, its laws, its development, how to do its sadhna, etc. is all found in Gandharva-veda.
Artha-veda deals with the science of statecraft. The Artha-veda provides all details on rulership, different areas of government and society. An example is how the king did not have the power to make laws, but was the upholder of the law.