If someone attempts to reach the extremity of the present universe, supposing that he has the necessary equipment and sufficiently long life, where will he reach and when? Obviously, even if he ‘goes to the ends of the earth’ to reach the extremity, he won’t succeed in his attempt. Again, if someone asks what the value of the number one divided by zero is, the answer is that it is something infinitely large, which is unimaginable and hence undefined. Similar is the case if one tries to explain the Sanatan Dharma. It has come down to us in the present times, having been transmitted from generation to generation. If we go back into the past to find out the origins of Sanatan Dharma, we will be lost in the hazy past without accomplishing the objective.
Sanatan Dharma forms the foundation of Hindu religious and cultural philosophy. The word ‘Sanatan’ means ‘ancient’; it also means ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’. This vindicates that Sanatan can never represent anything which is outdated or scrapped. Hence, the word Sanatan stands for something that is old and at the same time ever new. God is called the Sanatan Purusha, the Primeval Being, and the One who has no beginning. Thus Sanatan Dharma disseminates the way of life having existed from the beginning; in its most inherent and original state.
The people who inhabited the land of Bharat, since thousands of years, eventually constituted a society which is the ‘ancient most’ or ‘Sanatan’ in nature. Hence, the way of life evolved out of this came to be known as Sanatan Dharma. Over a long period of time extending into many millennia, the name of the country, its society and Dharma underwent many changes. What is presently called India used to be called Jamboo Dweepa, Ajanaabha Varsha, Bhaarata Varsha and Hindustan during different periods of time.
It is believed that in ancient times, there was no other Dharma except Sanatan Dharma dominating the whole world. It was the only Manav Dharma or human religion, applicable to all countries and to all nationalities of the world. This Dharma, however, used to be called by different names like Sanatan Dharma, Arya Dharma or Hindu Dharma.
It is only recently, perhaps since the advent of Christianity, that Sanatan Dharma has come to be separated from other religions claiming independent faiths. In the present times, the meaning of the words Hindu Dharma, Hindu Sanskriti etc. are widely recognized and understood by the people of the world. But in reality, Hindu Dharma and Hindu Sanskriti are nothing new but the same as Sanatan Dharma and Sanatan Sanskriti; just as the name Ganga is more popular even though that sacred river has many other names such as Mandakini, Bhaagirathi and Jahnavi.
The Eternal Truth
As is mentioned, the Hindu way of life has its origin in the remote past, where no human probe could reach. Since then, like Ganga, it has been flowing uninterruptedly, integrating in itself many a small stream to become an all-comprehensive, invigorating human life pattern. During this long march, it must have taken many a turn; but all the same its march has been forward to be capable of leading humanity to divinity.
Where many ancient cultures ceased to exist over time, Hindu culture, on the contrary, could survive many onslaughts because it is based on eternal Dharma. Sages and saints could delve into the secrets of creation through their Yogic power and gave humanity the basis of Dharma in the form of Vedas. Vedas are not the products of human intelligence; they are the records of eternal truth as discovered by rishis (sages). So they are called ‘Apaurushya’ (not composed by humans). They contain axioms, which do not need any other supporting argument from any scripture whatsoever, to prove its veracity. They are the ultimate authority.
Swami Jitatmananda in his book ‘Modern physics and Vedanta’ says: “Vedic rishis discovered Cosmological truths not through empirical observation but through intuitive insight gained in ‘Samadhi’. Samadhi is a process of withdrawing the senses into the mind, the mind into the intellect and the intellect into the pure consciousness. In other words, it is the reversal of creation, a return to the primordial uncreated state. In this return journey, the illumined seer discovers the stages which the external universe passed during creation.” Hence, the rishis are not the authors of Vedas; they are only seers of the eternal truths recorded in Vedas. Vedas are eternal and hence Dharma too is eternal.
Vedas are the earliest of all the holy books of the world, probably belonging to 8000 BC or earlier. They can be rightly acclaimed as the first glorious step of human heritage. They are the repository of secular knowledge like different sciences and arts too. The word ‘Veda’ is formed from the root word ‘Vid’, which means ‘to know’. Vedas are not records of past history. They are not compilation of fictitious stories either to propagate moral principles or to entertain. Surely they are not the poetic compositions of primitive cattle grazers. They are revealed knowledge to holy sages some of whom are Gautama, Atri, Vasishta, Vishwaamitra, Kanva, and Atharvan. They contain the eternal truths, which the modern scientific mind is struggling to decipher. In Bhagavad–Gita, Lord Krishna says, “This creation is like a Peepal tree which has its roots up and branches down; Vedas are its leaves. One who knows this knows the truth.” In common language, it only means that the Creation has sprouted from Paramatma (the Supreme Lord) and Vedas sustain it, by instructing people about the right conduct, prayer and the fruits thereof.
Vedas are a composition of unique character, generally denoted by the word ‘Samhitas’ literally meaning ‘the collections’ of the universal laws. It is said that the Supreme Lord Narayana gives out Vedas in the beginning of every cycle of creation. Vedas sustain creation, by instructing human beings about the activities which they are ordained to do and those they are prohibited from. Hindus also believe that the present universe is not the only one and that similar universes existed earlier and would exist in future too. Vedas are ‘Anaadi’ (without beginning) and ‘Ananta’ (without end).
The Four Vedas
The content of Vedas was in the form of an undivided mass in the beginning. It was divided into four parts by Maharshi Veda Vyasa to suit Kaliyuga – in view of the shorter lifespan and depleted mental capacities of human beings. They are: Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. He taught them one to each of his disciples Paila, Vaishampayan, Jaimini and Sumantha and commanded them to propagate. They taught the sections entrusted to them to their disciples and thus Vedas are preserved by oral tradition, from teacher to pupil through generations. This system of propagation is called Guru Parampara. By this system, not only the text of the Vedas, but also the intonations of various syllables of the hymns are passed on from one generation to another.
The Rig Veda consists of hymns in praise of the gods (lustrous beings like sun etc.) in the heavens. It is the main book comprising Vedic Mantras. It begins with a Sookta to Agni (Fire) and concludes with a Sookta to the same deity. It contains 10 Mandalas or books with 1028 hymns or Sooktas. There is another division of Rig Veda by which it is divided into 8 Ashtakas with 94 Adhyaayas (chapters) and 2009 Vargas. The total number of verses in Rig Veda is 10,580.
The Yajur Veda is classified into Krishna (black) and Shukla (white) recensions. The Yajur Veda contains mainly sacrificial formulae in prose and verse to be chanted at the performance of a sacrifice. The Samhita of the Shukla Yajur Veda is also called ‘Vajasaneyi Samhita’. ‘Vajasani’ is one of the names of the Sun god. The last chapter of Shukla Yajur Veda is the most important ‘Isa Upanishad’.
The Sama Veda consists mostly of verses from Rig Veda, set to music for singing during the sacrifice. It is a collection of Mantras meant for ‘Udgaata’ priest. There are 1549 Richas in Sama Veda and only 75 of them are independent of Rig Veda.
Atharva Veda presents three types of sacrifices – ‘Shantikam’ for peace, ‘Paushtikam’ for strength and ‘Abhicharikam’ to cause injury to enemies. Atharva Veda is also called Atharva Angirasa Veda i.e. the fire priests Atharvan and Angirasa, both the words meaning tracing of magic formulas and magic spells. Atharvan is sacred and auspicious magic pertaining to peace, health, wealth, affection and protection in family whereas Angirasa means hostile magic relating to curse to enemies, exorcism of evil spirits and ghosts etc. Atharva Veda consists of 20 Kandas, which contain 739 hymns and approximately 6000 verses in prose and also in poetry. After the passage of a long time, when understanding Vedas became difficult, Vedangas (Limbs of the Veda) came into being to explain the true meaning of Vedas.
Types of Vedangas
There are six types of Vedangas namely Shiksha, Kalpa, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Chandas and Jyotish.
- Shiksha: This is the science of proper articulation and pronunciation. The prime one among Shiksha books is the famous Paniniya Shiksha.
- Kalpa means the science, which stipulates the rituals and justifies the small differences of sacrifices of all branches of the Vedas.
- Vyakarana is grammar. It is the most important of the six Vedangas. It clarifies the construction of words and syntax in complications of Vedic language. The author of Vyakarana (Ashtadhyayi) is Panini belonging to the 3rd century BC.
- Nirukta deals with etymology of difficult Vedic words. Yaska is said to be the trustworthy author of this science. The science of versification is known as Chandas Shastra (Prosody). This was done by Pingala Nagacharya. There are seven Vedic metres. They are:
- Jyotish (Astronomy): Acharya Lagadha wrote Vedanga Jyotish, which consists of seven chapters. This deals with the calculation of the movements of various planets, occurrence of eclipses, intercalary months etc. This is considered to be the eye of the Vedas among the Vedangas because Vedic austerities are to be performed exactly at the prescribed points of time.