Monday, 18 November 2013

What do the Vedas Teach Us?

Professor Sarva-Daman Singh 
Director, Institute of Asian Studies, Brisbane

Veda, signifying knowledge, comes from the root vid, ‘to know.’ Hindus regard the four Vedas, Rig, Yajur, Sāma and Atharva as revelations; and class them with the Brāhmanas (texts), Āranyakas and the Upanishadas as Śruti, ‘heard’ from above, divinely inspired! The Vedas explore origins of life, highlighting the ideals of human existence; and the goals that beckon. There is no dogma, no restriction of thought. We are told in words clear as crystal: ā no bhadrā kratavo yantu viśvatah: ‘let noble thoughts come to us from every direction’. That, indeed, is the essence of the Vedas.

The Vedas teach us to pursue truth, to accept nothing but the Truth, which is one, though the wise describe it in various ways: ekam sat viprāh bahudhā vadanti. That Truth or sat is synonymous with being and becoming, with life and living in all its manifestations. Rita, the opposite of untruth (anrita), is the Cosmic Law that holds the entire creation together. Any transgression of Rita is punishable by Varuna, the dispenser of Divine Justice. Above both gods and humans, it provides the basis of karma that binds one to its consequence.
The countless forms of creation manifest the Truth or Reality of God or Brahman, which is variously imagined, described and named. But beneath and beyond all the names of gods and goddesses, ‘great is the single godhood of all the devas’.

The clear thrust of the Vedas is towards an unmistakable monism. At the end of so many prayers, the worshipper poses the question: kasmai devāys havishā vidhema, “ to which god do I offer my sacrifice”? In an open, speculative, sceptical query such as this, there is no room for any raging fanaticism. Indeed, the Nāsadīya hymn of the Rigveda asks unhesitatingly whether the gods know how this world came into being? Perhaps even they do not know, for they appeared only later, when humankind saw them manifested in the splendid diversity of creation. 

The entire cosmos is an emanation of the Divine. All living creatures arise out of the body of Purusha, the Primeval Man or Primordial reality, the essence of the Divine. The Purusha-sūkta of the Rigveda lays the foundation of the Upanishadic assertion: tat tvam asi, ‘that art thou’. The four varnas and the later castes harking back to them have one common source of being – Purusha. The Śūdras arising out of his feet are an integral part of the body of Purusha. In every later iconographic representation of God only the feet are worshipped; we do not worship the mouths, arms and thighs of deities; and the Śūdras alone arising from the feet of Purusha are entitled to grateful worship in as much as they represent the locomotion of Divine power, and render invaluable service to society. There is none higher than the other in this metaphysical scheme of creation. We have to recognize the essential divinity and equal dignity of all humankind. Any invidious distinctions are an insufferable affront to our common Maker and our shared destiny. Dignity of labour in the pursuit of different professions expresses the organic unity of all life’s activities.

The Vedas exhort us to live together in a spirit of love and harmony (AV. 3.30.4) aimed at our collective happiness (RV.5.60). We may enjoy what we have by renouncing it, in a spirit of non-attachment. Let us not be greedy; whose wealth is it after all: tena tyaktena bhuñjīthā mā gridhah kasya svid dhanam (YV.XL. 1-2).

‘Let the wealthier person be generous to the applicant,
Let him take a longer view;
for life rolls on like the wheels of a chariot,
wealth now comes to one, now to another.
…he who eats alone verily eats nothing but a sin.’ (RV.X.117.5-6)

No man or woman is an isolated island; and it is in the context of the world around that our life has any meaning. The Upanishadic dictum da commands us to cultivate dayā, dāna and dama, compassion, charity and self-control, to claim our true humanity. The Vedas lay the seeds of thought that reach their full blossom in the Upanishads.

The Rigveda (V.85.7) asks us to be kind and considerate to brothers, friends, comrades, neighbours and even strangers, with a prayer addressed to Varuna for forgiveness for any unintended trespass. And its last hymn voices the human aspiration to march together in common concert, sangachchhadvaṁ; to think, meet and talk in unision to arrive at a true concurrence of hearts and minds, samachittaṁ, sammanah; in order to formulate policies conducive to common welfare. The Yajurveda significantly intones: ‘we view the world with friendly eyes’: mitrasya chakshushā samīkshāmahe. The holiest hymn of the Vedas, the Gāyatrī, prayers only for the quickening of our minds, so that we may transcend our differences and the trammels of worldliness to attain our true stature.

All the rivers of Indian thought and philosophy flow from the great reservoir of the Vedic tradition; and all our perceptions of the self in others, and of the others in the self, arise from the Vedic realization of the indissoluble relationship between God, humanity and the rest of creation. We pray for deliverance from darkness into the light of understanding that we are not alone; that the joys and sorrows of others are our own; their success and failure are our own. The capacity to do so makes us truly human, enabling us to tread the earth in the image of God. Festivals like Deepavali bridge the chasms that divided us. Our inequalities are of our own making; and the illumination of our true selves will help demolish them in our collective pursuit of fulfillment. That is why, in Keśin hymn of Regveda, long-haired munis or ascetics drink the poison of the world in the company of God Rudra, illustrating the ideal of suffering saviours!

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