In ancient cultures, such as that of the Indo-Aryans or the Druids, literacy and education were not considered of general major importance, because they were not regarded as means to acquire material prosperity but merely as instruments to realize spiritual illumination and religious insight. And indeed, throughout the centuries mystics of both East and West have attained enlightenment and union with supreme Reality not through scholastic study, not through dialectic discourses, but through self-negation and intuitive, direct comprehension. Rarely have those of great intellectual stature penetrated to the deepest esoteric truths embedded in the symbology of scriptural texts. With this in mind, we can better understand the conviction of the Brahmins that the sacred knowledge would be perverted when put into writing; the Vedas had to be heard. Yet, at the same time, in favoring the age-old method of orally instructing their pupils, they caused the complete neglect of the written word, which did not re-emerge before the sixth century BC at the dawn of the new intellectual epoch in India.
Throughout the Buddhist canon we come across passages which presuppose the existence of that very ancient religious tradition known as the Vedas, in which even the Great Mendicant (Buddha) had acquired perfect mastery under the renowned sage Visvamitra. Yet the source of this literature, if it can be called such in the modern sense of the word, is shrouded in mystery. Professor Maurice Winternitz writes in A History of Indian Literature:
Vedic literature led us well-nigh into "prehistoric" times; and for the beginning of epic poetry, too, we had to dispense with all certain dates. It is only with the Buddhist literature that we gradually emerge unto the broad daylight of history, and we have seen that the darkness of the history of the Vedic and epic literature is somewhat illuminated by this light.
Buddhism, in the eyes of many European scholars the most fragrant flower of Indian thought, sprang from the tired soil of the Vedic religion. Although its system of philosophy differs vastly in some of its cardinal tenets from Brahmanism, any critical student is fully aware that Buddhism has absorbed many of the teachings of the earliest Upanishads. For a fuller understanding of Buddha's spiritual teachings, a study of the atmosphere in which they developed, at the convergence as it were of Vedic and non-Vedic streams, is almost indispensable.
The sacred tradition of the Vedas was already in the possession of the Aryans when they came from Europe many, many millennia ago. Its purely mystic religio-philosophy was not only closely related to that of their relatives in Iran (where it took the form of the Avesta), but is also similar to the Eleusinian and Orphic creeds of the Western Aryans who migrated to and established their cultural empires in Greece, Central Europe and the Emerald Isle. However, the seeds of degradation had been planted in the Aryan religion before that great family divided for reasons still unknown.
The Vedas are the supreme authority for all orthodox schools. Six systems (Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Nyaya, and Vaiseshika) belong to the Astika Darsana, the term Darsana literally meaning "vision," vision of the Absolute Truth. On the other hand, Charvaka (materialism), Jainism and Buddhism, for instance are termed Nastika, i.e. not based on the Vedas. Each of the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Saman and Atharvan) is again divided into four sections, namely, Samhita (collection of hymns), Brahmanas (treatises on sacrifices and rituals), Aranyakas ("forest books" for hermits about sacrifices and contemplation), and the Upanishads, dealing with deeper metaphysics and theosophical speculations. Classical writers from the fifth millennium BC to the first century AD such as Manu, mention only the first three Vedas, and it seems fairly certain that the Atharvan originally was independent from the threefold knowledge or trayi.
Orthodox Hindus hold that the Vedas existed even before the creation of the world, co-eternal with Brahman. In The Cultural Heritage of India Swami Shri Madhavananda aptly observes:
. . . by the word "Veda" which literally means knowledge, no books are primarily meant, but the sum total of the knowledge of God, which concerning itself as it does, with abstract principles, is necessarily eternal. Just as gravitation existed before Newton, and would have remained just the same even if he had not discovered it, so these principles existed before man, and will remain for ever. Their connection with man is that they were revealed to certain exceptionally gifted persons called rishis or sages, who visualized them and handed them down through a succession of disciples.
It seems safe to assert that the hymns were collected and codified by these rishis somewhere near the present Punjab more than six thousand years ago, and gathered into the Rig-Veda Samhita, the world's earliest masterpiece. It is a voluminous work, its bulk comparable to the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Its 1017 original hymns, systematically arranged in ten mandalas and containing over ten thousand stanzas in all, are addressed to terrestrial and celestial devas or divinities, whose characteristics were somewhat modified when the Aryans, after their successful invasion of India, arrived in their new surroundings in Aryavarta (country of the Aryans).
This fertile plain, extending from the glittering snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the fragrant Vindhya ranges, and from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, inspired their poets to sing of its picturesque countryside and scenic beauty. For instance, one seer-poet, in simple and charming style, depicts the Sindhu (Indus) as outstanding among all the rivers that run through Aryavarta to the sea:
The sound rises up to heaven above the earth; she stirs up with splendor her endless power. As from a cloud, the showers thunder forth, when the Sindhu comes, roaring like a bull. . . .
Sparkling, bright with mighty splendor she carries the waters across the plains — the unconquered Sindhu, the quickest of the quick, like a beautiful mare — a sight to see.
Rich in horse, in chariots, in garments, in gold, in booty, in wool, and in straw, the Sindhu, handsome and young, clothes herself in sweet flowers.
The Aryans, having learned from the native inhabitants the cultivation of rice paddy and other grains, soon became the wealthiest people of the then-known world, with time for recreation, for arts, for philosophy and reflection. Consequently, most of the hymns of the Rig-Veda are not just odes to the beauty of nature, but are musings about a transcendental reality beyond the visible natural phenomena. In the ninth mandala of the Rig-Veda we come across the following hymn:
O Pavamana, place me in that deathless undecaying world, wherein the light of heaven is set and everlasting luster shines;
Make me immortal in that realm where dwells the King Vivasvan's son, where is the secret shine of heaven, where are those waters young and fresh.
Make me immortal in that realm where they move even as they list, in the third sphere of inmost heaven where lucid worlds are full of light;
Make me immortal in that realm of eager wish and strong desire, the region of radiant moon, where food and full delight are found;
Make me immortal in that realm where happiness and transports, where joys and felicities combine and longing wishes are fulfilled.
It is said that the rishis, while in a spiritual trance, came in direct contact with the devas of whom they sang and whom they considered as expressions of the cosmic intelligence, manifestations of the immanent divine principle. Thus they conceived of nature as a living organism controlled by conscious, intelligent entities.
To denote these deities, the poets coined a special appellative term, deva, for which there is no adequate equivalent in modern European languages. It literally means the "shining one" or the "donor." The rain, therefore, is a deva, because it gives nourishment to all life on earth. Sun, moon and stars are devas, because they shed cosmic light throughout the solar system and universe. The Ganges, Indus and Sarasvati are deified rivers, because they irrigate the arable lands of Aryavarta. In addition, many gods of the pluralistic pantheon had been great heroes, warriors and philanthropists, who later were regarded as devas for their valor, patriotism and benevolence. Indra, the Maruts, Vayu and Matarisvan are some of these deified beings, sublimated into prominent rank among the gods.
The religion of the Vedas is neither naturalism nor anthropomorphism, neither polytheism nor monotheism, but is a unique mysticism, a synthesis of all the prevalent religious cults known to the ancient Aryans. After they entered the fertile Punjab valley and established their permanent home in Northern India, one of their first concerns was to collect and codify their holy tradition, the Vedas, which were at that period scattered over different parts of Aryavarta, preserved by the various families. The disdain of the Aryans for alien cultures and religious cults directly contributed to the purity in which the Vedas were held, no outside influence marring their pristine beauty, and hardly any foreign divinities finding a place in their early pantheon.
The Vedic pantheon is a complicated one, deserving separate treatment. For the time being the following general picture must suffice. The rishis divided the universe into three spheres or lokas, namely, Dyurloka or the celestial world, over which Savitri, the solar deity, presided; Antarikshaloka or the intermediate sphere, supervised by Indra; and Bhurloka or the terrestrial world, under the reign of Agni (Fire). However, when esotericism was ousted by exotericism, symbolism by ritualism, idealism by sacerdotalism, this early spiritual concept soon dwindled into a polytheistic sacrificial creed. The three spheres of the vertical universe of the original Vedic sages was believed to be the abode of thirty-three gods: the eight Vasus, the eleven Rudras, the twelve Adityas, Dyaus (Zeus) and Prithivi (earth). Later 3,339 gods and goddesses were assigned to these spheres, and finally their number was increased by some authorities to 330,000,000! Commentators like Sayana (14th century) and others who deeply reflected on this subject, believed that these gods were the personifications of the innumerable virtues and qualities of the eternal divine principle.
When at last the cultural life of the Aryans became completely dominated by the priesthood, the emergence of a ritualized form of religion was inevitable. The Brahmin priests made every effort to persuade the masses that the only way to salvation was through sacrifice. So the triumphant and haughty Aryans, ever coveting more cattle, gold and sons, began to employ professional hymnologists, specialists in phonetics and other branches of literary arts, to address long chants to the gods and goddesses that they might shower upon them prosperity and longevity. Animal sacrifice, introduced during the Epic period, received more and more emphasis. In due course it would stir feelings of opposition which ultimately would result in a definite schism in the ceremonial Vedic religion, and in the birth of the tradition of nonviolence, but for centuries it held its central place in the Brahminical worship. A second, new Veda, called Yajurveda, delineating the execution of sacrifices and various other rituals, was soon formulated; in it we find, partly in prose and partly in verse, hymns addressed to the sacred utensils and other objects used. A third Veda, the Samaveda, comprising the specific lyrical incantations which were to be uttered at particular occasions, was also added, with most of its hymns taken from the early Rig-Veda.
The extremely complicated ceremonial system compelled the priests to acquire perfect mastery of their tradition, for the exclusiveness of their class, in which lay the safeguard of their power, demanded rigid rules of behavior and stringent methods of learning. Only warriors, Brahmins and merchants were entitled to study, or even hear, the Vedas, and thus were considered to be "twice-born," while all other classes were called sudras. The establishment of the hereditary right to perform sacrifices gradually paved the way for the caste-system. Ruling princes and great landlords paid for the education of Brahmin youths who dedicated themselves to the priesthood. These young men had to undergo arduous training, primarily intended to bring about inner and outer purification. Truthfulness, forbearance, purity and uprightness were ideally some of the cardinal moral virtues which an orthodox Brahmin had to cultivate. Hypocrisy and dishonesty were regarded as unpardonable sins. Their deep conviction that they represented the divinities in this world and thus had to endeavor to live a life of godliness, kept the spiritual culture of the officiating Brahmins strong through many centuries.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1972. Copyright © 1972 by Theosophical University Press)