Essay on the Philosophy of the Vedas (3294 Words)

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In the words of Wilson, an eminent Western scholar, “The Vedas give us abundant information, respecting all that is more interesting in the contemplation of antiquity.”

In them are vividly described all the aspects of primitive human life. They are the fountain-head not only of philosophy, religion and ritual, but also of many sciences. They are not merely philosophical treatises unfolding the realm of spirituality; they dwell on all conceivable topics, spiritual as well as mundane.

Action is necessary for knowledge and has therefore been codified in Karma Kanda found in the Vedas.

Indian philosophy is as old as human experience of sorrow and suffering. It was dissatisfaction with mundane life which gave birth to Indian philosophy. The ultimate aim of Indian philosophy is to get rid of sorrow. Ignorance is the fountainhead of this sorrow, so it is clear that mere spiritual practice will not suffice. If one wants to realize his life-mission, knowledge is equally essential. Knowledge, coupled with practice, can alone enable man to attain his destination. “Veda” means knowledge and “Darshana” means the realization of that knowledge. The Vedas form the oldest records of human knowledge.

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The Vedas are the oldest authority on Indian philosophy. Through penance the Vedic seers had a vision of the Ultimate Being in the form of Abhaya Jyoti. They expressed their divine experience in Vedic hymns. Based as they are on the intuitive knowledge of the Ultimate Reality, these hymns do not reflect the individuality of the seers.

Hence they are considered to be “Apauruseya” i.e., the ultimate Being had manifested Himself in the form of the Vedic hymns and the seers are no more than the media chosen by the Being for this purpose. It explains the attitude of the Astika Indian philosophers, who considered the Vedas to be the ultimate authority. The Vedas, according to them, enshrine the eternal and ultimate truths. These truths have been preserved through the unbroken tradition of the teacher and pupil from times immemorial. Therefore, they arc christened as Sruti.

Although outwardly four, the Vedas are one and the same. Like the one and eternal Abhaya Jyoti, the Vedas are also one and eternal. There are four Vedas, viz., Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Each Veda comprises three parts—Mantra, Brahmana, and Upanishads.


The Samhitas are the collections of hymns: The Brahmanas deal with Karma Kanda. Philosophical thought is enshrined in the Upanishads and Aranyakas. The latter fall between the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. In addition to name and form, language and matter also figure in the first three Vedas. The Atharva Veda differs from the other Vedas as in it one finds historical narration also.

Interpretations of the Vedic Hymns:

As regards the interpretation of the Vedas, divergent views have been ex­pressed by Eastern and Western scholars.

The most important of them are the following:

1. Naturalist Interpretation:

The eminent Indian commentator, Sayana, interprets the Vedic hymns in terms of prayers to various gods, who are the embodiments of natural powers. The Vedas are the repositories of primitive religion. Their religion is nature worship. In the words of Dr. Radhakrishanan, “In the main, we say that the Rig-Veda represents the religion of an unsophisticated age, the great mass of the hymns are simple and native, expressing the religious consciousness of a mind as yet free from the later sophistication.” Some modem Western scholars also propound the same view. Pfleiderer refers to the “primitive, childlike and naive” prayers of the Vedas.

2. Ritualistic Interpretation:


Bloomfield, on the other hand, holds that in the Vedic hymns are described the various methods of sacrifice. The Rig-Veda is the work of a primitive race which laid great emphasis on ritualism. The Gods and Goddesses, mentioned in the Vedas, represent the manifold particles required for the Yajna and so they do not represent anything profound and deep.

3. Allegorical Interpretation:

Bergain regards all the Vedic hymns as al­legories. To him, the Gods and Goddesses of the Vedas are symbols of social customs and conventions.

4. Monotheistic Interpretation:

According to Pictat, monotheism, how­soever dim and primitive its form may be, is clearly visible in the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Roth and Swami Dayananda also hold the same view. Underneath the farrago of Gods and Goddesses, one may perceive a tendency towards monotheism. Many hymns refer to the God of Gods (Devadhideva). It implies that according to the Vedas the supreme God is only one, though there are many semi-Gods.

5. Monisic Interpretation:

Raja Ram Mohan Roy holds the view that the Vedic gods allegorically represent the characteristics of an ultimate God. The different Gods and Goddesses of the Vedic hymns are the different facets of the one God who has sometimes been called Maheshwar.

6. Mystic Interpretation:

Sri Aurobindo finds the Vedas replete with mystic philosophy and occult knowledge. To him, the Vedic Gods and Goddesses are the symbols of psychological processes. Sun, for example, symbolizes intellect while Fire and Soma represent determination and feeling respectively. The Vedic religion resembles Orphic and Eleusinian creeds in their essentially mystic nature. In the words of Sri Aurobindo, “The hypothesis I propose is that the Rig-Veda is itself the one considerable document that remains to us from the early period of human thought of which the historical Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries were the failing remnants when the spiritual and psychological knowledge of the race was con­cealed, for reasons now difficult to determine, in a veil of concrete and material figures and symbols which protected the sense from the profane and revealed it to the initiated. One of the leading principles of the mysteries was the sacredness and secrecy of self-knowledge and the true knowledge of the Gods. This wisdom was, they thought, unfit or, perhaps even dangerous to the ordinary human mind or in any case liable to perversion and misuse and loss of virtue if revealed to vulgar and unpurified spirits. Hence they favoured the existence of an outer worship effective but imperfect, for the profane, and an inner discipline for the initiate and clothed their language in words and images which had equally a spiritual sense for the elect and a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers”.

All these views, though they appear to be contradictory on the surface, visualize the same truth from different angles. All of them contain some grain of truth. Different hymns were created by different seers and so they differ in the meaning and import. None of the above-mentioned interpretations of Vedic hymns may be regarded as absolutely correct.

The Vedas do not deal with one exclusive subject. In them one finds philosophy and religion, on the one hand, and science and magic, on the other. Naturally, therefore, all the hymns cannot be interpreted in a uniform manner. It is more proper to interpret the Vedas in the light of the historical and social context of a primitive stage in the evolution of the human race, keeping in mind the eternity of spiritual visions.

The Ultimate Aim:

The Vedic seers were fully alive to the miseries of earthly existence. On the one hand, the phenomena of nature stimulated their curiosity and goaded them on to fathom the mysteries of nature; on the other, they longed for emancipation from worldly ills. Hence search for perfect bliss, along with that of perfect knowledge, is the aim of the Vedas. The Vedic seers were naturally anxious to conquer death. Hence the prayers for longevity in the Vedas.

They knew the different methods of prayer for pro-pitiating different deities. They had implicit faith in the efficacy of prayer. They regarded the knowledge about weal and woe, eternal and ephemeral, freedom from old age, death and fear, and about both worlds, as a stepping stone for the realisation of “Abhaya Jyoti”. They have prayed for knowledge and bliss. Keenly desirous of ultimate knowledge, the aspirants shed off all egotism and surrender to God.

To quote one such prayer: “O Aditya I have no discretion of right and left and I am feeling stupified and stale. By your grace and kindness I can realise the Abhaya Jyoti.” Only communion between the human soul and God may lead to knowledge and happiness. Hence, according to the Vedas the realization of the “Abhaya Jyoti” is the only recipe for emancipation from the ills and evils, which infest life in the dismal world. This is the only royal road to summum bonum.

The Vedic literature has been divided into two parts—Jnana Kanda and Karma Kanda—which represent knowledge and ritualism respectively. Spiritual specula­tion and prayer form the subject matter of Jnana Kanda and Karma Kanda respectively. Different sorts of prayers have been suggested for different types of people in accordance with their deserts.

All and sundry are not entitled for every form of prayer and worship. Worship by an uninitiated person may prove abortive and cause trouble. So the Vedas enjoin one to perform prayer and rituals according to his merit. Consideration of innocuous deeds and pur conduct is also as much necessary as knowledge. Penitence, prayers, simple diet, gentleness in thought and purification of heart are essential for the realisation of the Ultimate Being.

Greed, hypocrisy, pride, anger and callousness are despicable and must be resolutely eschewed. Sinful people, marplots, depredators of gods, thieves and those who arc close-fisted and averse to Brahmins should be kept at an arm’s length. Magicians and licentious people have been dubbed as hellish creatures. Gods who pursue the path of righteousness only are variously described as truthful, meritorious and followers of right action etc.

The Theory of Karma:

The Vedas propound the theory of Karma. Epithets like (protector of good deeds) (Seer of good and evil action), (Master of all Karma) have been used for the gods in Vedas. That good actions lead to immortality has been explicitly mentioned in many a hymn. The human soul undergoes many a cycle of birth and death according to its deeds. Vamdeva alludes to many of his previous life terms.

According to the Vedas, man in this life has to suffer the consequences of the actions of his previous life. The Vedas trace the evil propensities of the present life to the evil actions committed in the previous life. Some of the Vedic seers pray for the condonation of their misdeeds of the previous life.

They also refer to Sanchita (accumulated) and Prarabdha (destined) Karma People doing good deeds go to Brahmaloka via Devavana while those doing ordinary deeds go to Chandraloka via Pitryana. To suffer the consequences of their sins, some enter inanimate bodies like those of trees, creepers, etc. Sometimes the soul is punished vicariously also for the sins of others. Thus the doctrine of Karma has been discussed in all its manifold aspects in the Vedas.

Vedic Religion:

Almost all the hymns in the Rig-Veda eulogise the gods. These gods are the master of the moving spirits of the different powers of nature. Unlike the Greek gods, they are not separated in watertight compartments. Like the natural powers they represented, they are also co-related with one another. Almost similar en­comiums are bestowed on .different gods in the Vedic Mantras. These gods are not invested with any cyrstallised individuality.

1. Polytheism:

The large number of gods has induced some to think that the Vedas are polytheistic. Others, on the contrary, hold that they are purely monotheistic. Both these views are, however, one-sided. In fact, all the Vedic hymns are not identical in their approach and content, nor are they the products of any specific seer of a particular period. The Vedic ideology also shows a gradual evolution. In fact, both monotheistic and polytheistic tendencies run side-by-side in the Vedas.

Unlike gods of a polytheistic creed, the Vedic gods do not have separate individual existence. Either they pale into insignificance or they are elevated to the high pedestal of the supreme God. Living in the lap of nature, the seers deified the powers of nature which overawed them or surprised them. The particular power of nature, which impressed them most at a particular period was referred to as Parama Deva or the highest God by them.

2. Henotheism:

This tendency, which is termed as henotheism or Kathenothism by Prof. Max Muller means, “A belief in single gods, each in turn standing out as the highest.” And since the gods are thought of as specially ruling in their own spheres, the singers, in their special concerns and desires, call most of all on that god to whom they ascribe the most power in the matter, to whose department, if I may say so, their wish belongs.

This god alone is present to the mind of the suppliant; with him for the time being is associated everything that can be said of a divine being; he is the highest, the only god, before whom all others disappear, there being in this, however, no offence or depreciation of any other god. Thus, according to many scholars, the Vedas proceed from polytheism to henotheism. In other words, polytheism, henotheism and monotheism are three different stages in the evolutionary history of the Vedic gods. Macdonell con­tradicts this view because, according to him, the Vedic gods are not wholly independent of the rest. They are, on the other hand, interdependent. Varuna and Surya depend on Indra.

Varuna and Aswin are at the disposal of Vihsnu. “Everywhere a god is spoken of as unique or chief. As is natural enough in laudations such statement lose their temporarily monotheistic force, through the modifications or corrections supplied by the context or even by the same verse.”

Macdonell further holds that, “Henotheism is therefore an appearance rather a reality, an appearance produced by the indefiniteness due to undeveloped anthropomorphism, by the lack of any Vedic god occupying the position of a Zeus as the constant head of the pantheon, by the natural tendency of the priest or singer in extolling a particular god to exaggerate his regalness and to ignore other gods, and by the growing belief in the unity of the gods each of whom might be regarded as a type of the diving.” But whether we call it henotheism or the mere temporary exaggeration of the powers of deity in question, it is obvious that this stage can neither be properly called polytheistic nor monotheistic but one which had a tendency towards both these stages.

3. Monism:

The Vedic philosophy does not stop even at monotheism. This tendency towards the one culminates in monism. There are hymns in the Vedas which allude to monism, e.g.:

1. The true essence of the gods is only one.

2. All that was, that is and that will be is but the purusha.

3. We make offerings to the supreme God of the universe, who is pervading the whole existence and each and every nook and corner of the universe; who is full of Anajida (supreme bliss) and inexpressible.

4. Sat is one, the wise regard Him as many.

5. His is the soul of this universe. Detached, self-dependent, immortal, full of everlasting youth and eternal.

6. All the gods are but the organs of the body of the soul of the universe.

7. Though pervading the whole universe. He transends it all.

8. That inexpressible is the substratum of all names and the whole universe.

Conception of the Universe:

The Vedas contain different views about the origin of the universe. The origin of the universe is traced to Agni or fire. After that, earth, heaven, day, night, water and medicines came into existence. All the souls were born out of Trasta. Indra created earth and heaven. He also originated the three worlds and the living beings. Similarly, Viswa Karma and Varuna have been described as the creators of the universe. All this clearly indicates that the Vedic seers attributed this credit to any God whom they wanted to mollify at a particular juncture. This may also be taken to mean that the Vedas do not consider the various gods as separate entities.

The Nasadiya hymn in the Rig Veda describes vividly the states in the process of the creation of universe. It maintains that Sat, Antariksa and Vyoma did exist prior to the universe. Only the one existed. None else was there. There was all-enveloping darkness everywhere. There was water, but no light. That ‘One’ originated from ‘Tamas’, which was a latent consciousness prior to the creation of this universe. Later on the wonders of the world manifested themselves out of it. This ‘Tamas’ is an omnipresent power. It is the fountain-head of all the three processes of knowledge, desire and action.

The purusha hymn of the Yajur Veda also holds one omnipresent power as the originator of the universe. It is He whose realization breaks off the shackles of worldly misery for good. This all-pervading power has been described variously as Vishwa Karma, the unique, omnipresent, invisible, Abhayam Jyotih, Paramavyoman, Paramapad and Avyakta that is the Ultimate Being.

The Theory of Rta:

Rta means the course of things. It shows an order in the objects of the universe. The place of Rta in the cosmos corresponds to that of Karma in human life. The principle underlying the cosmic has been termed as Rta by the Vedic seer. The observation of systematic movement of the sun, the moon, the stars, the day, the night, and the seasons might have aroused this idea in their mind.

Rta is antecedent to all tin-objects of the universe and the external universe is but its manifestation. Universe is changeable. Rta is unchangeable and eternal. It fathers all the objects of the universe. Heaven and hell owe their present existence to it. Originally, Rta denotes the fixed course of the universe comprising the sun, the moon, the stars, the morning, the evening, the day, the night etc.

But afterwards its connotation became more comprehensive and it was taken to signify the ethical course of gods and men. The world follows the course of Rta. The whole universe depends on Rta and moves with it. Thus, physical order is afterwards invested with moral significance. The theory of Rta brought a change in the conception of the gods. For the seers, the universe was not an accidental creation, but something with profound purpose and order.

Roots of Philosophical Systems:

The belief in the identity of Atman and Brahman expressed so often in the Brahmanas, is to be traced back to the hymns of the Vedas. This is further developed in the Upanishads and then it becomes one of the cardinal principles of Indian philosophy.

Thus the Vedic hymns are much more than the scriptures of the primitive Aryan race. In them one finds the germs of the thought currents of later Indian philosophy. The Karma Kanda and Jnana Kanda were fully developed by the Brahmanas and the Upanishads respectively.

Even the theism of the Bhagvada Gila derives its inspiration from the worship of Varuna described in the Vedas. The principles of Rta and Karma, propounded in the Vedas get a fertile soil and acquire a new significance in the philosophical works of the later period. Though only in an incipient stage, the Vedic thought strikes us as robust and inspiring.

In it one finds a welcome combination of knowledge and religion. It contains the first human reaction to the marvellous phenomena of nature. Above all, the organic relationship between man and nature and the qualities of the supreme power pervading both of them are beautifully dilated upon in these great works.

The realization of this supreme power was the be-all and end-all, the alpha and omega of Indian philosophy. Though in a disarmingly simple and primitive garb, the philosophy of the Vedas is the fountain-head of Indian philosophy.

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