The Vedas are sacred revelations to the Aryans of India, some of them at least 5,000 years old and traditionally much more. They contain hymns to gods and to the universal spirit, prayers and sacrifices for the individual’s success and happiness in this world and the next, ethical instructions like ‘speak the truth’ and ‘let an uninvited guest be a god to you’. All these are directed to the human being as an individual. This is the first path of the Vedas.
But there are other texts which give instructions on how to leap out of individuality altogether and be one with the universal spirit which is beyond even the gods. This is the second of the ‘two paths’, and with it the present text is concerned.
They are ‘paths’ – concerned with effecting a change, not merely dogmas to be fanatically clung to. Knowledge of facts for their own sake has never been valued in Indian thinking it was thought as pointless as the compulsive counting of leaves on a tree. Knowledge was prized for its results. The holy texts were not concerned with philosophical speculations indulged in by people who did not want to move; they were directions to a path for those who wanted to go along it. The two paths lead, respectively, to happiness, success and blessedness for those who want to remain individuals in this world and the next; and second, to throwing off individuality and becoming one with universal consciousness for those who feel individuality, even in heaven, as an imprisonment.
The Vedas include both paths. The instructions on freedom, the second path, come mostly in the texts called Upanishads or private instructions, which come at the end of the Vedas. They came to be called Vedanta (Veda-anta, ‘end of the Veda’), and as such are sometimes contrasted with the much more numerous texts concerned with the first path. In the Gita, for instance, the Lord says, ‘It is I who am to be known by all the Vedas, I am indeed the author of the Vedanta as well as the knower of the Vedas.’ Here it is being said that the divine Knower of the Vedas extracted the texts of the second path to make the Vedanta, or Upanishads. In fact the full title of the Gita is ‘the Upanishads sung (gita) by the Lord’.
The instructions include information about facts in this world, but this is subsidiary to the main teaching of the path. For instance, texts of the first path require worship of gods who keep in order the processes of nature, which otherwise would be in chaos. Much of the physical clumsiness and emotional frustration of sceptical city-dwellers arises from the loss of reverence for the things and processes of nature there is no unity of self, technically called tad-atmyata, between the man and what he sees and handles. Descriptions of the gods are given, to help the act of worship. The great teacher Shankara, commenting on these passages, says that the descriptions are true, but they are not the main purpose of the texts, so they are not to be taken as complete, nor argued over.
Again, a very old text (Aitareya Brahmana) remarks that the sun never sets nor rises, it is simply that people think he sets and rises. Shankara says of this sort of statement that though it is true, it is only incidental to the purpose of the Veda. Details about the order of creation, given in varying forms in the Upanishads, are reconciled with one another by Shankara at considerable length, but he emphasizes that the texts are not seeking to give exact accounts of the process. What they all declare is that it is conscious and purposeful, arising from one supreme reality called Brahman or universal Self.
Texts must not be relied on for purposes other than what they exist for. It is interesting to read in the royal household accounts that King John bathed three times in 1212, paying only eight- pence to the ewerer or water-carrier who prepared the baths5 such facts throw light on life in the early thirteenth century. But to expect to extract an account of social life in the Middle Ages merely from these household accounts would be ridiculous that was not their purpose. Great areas of social life would not be touched in them.
The Nobel prize-winner J. C. Bose remarked that it was having heard in childhood the Upanishadic statements that there is consciousness in everything, which gave him the impulse to investigate reactions in plants , the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa, also a Nobel prize-winner, has said that the ancient Chinese classic Tao Teh King was a great influence on his ideas. But it would be wrong to analyse these revelations in the hope of scientific statements about biology or physics; to give that is not their purpose. They may provide hints, but they are not text-books of science.
There is a tradition that we have today only about one- twentieth of the original Vedic corpus. Quoting a text, ‘infinite are the Vedas’, Dr Shastri told his pupils that the revelations transmitted by the great spiritual lights in all religions are properly called ‘Vedic’.
Texts of the second path also give some information about things of this world – for instance that in the natural course of events, man passes from waking, first into a state of dream and then into deep sleep, returning from that through the dream- state. It is also stated that individual man can meet the gods face to face, in this life. Here too the information given is subservient to the aim of the path, which is to transcend individuality altogether.
The inspirations are transmitted through human beings, though they are not taken to originate from merely human experience; they must however be practised and finally verified in experience. The commentary on the Chapter of the Self remarks that it is not a question of a viewpoint created merely by accepting the words of revelation; one must be able actually to take his stand on them. A viewpoint is one thing, and a standpoint is another; it is a basis for action as well as vision.
The Vedic revelations have been heard from those who speak from actual experience; they are therefore called ‘heard’ (shruti), and are also called ‘direct experience’ by Manu, himself one of the Vedic sages. There is another body of texts which Manu calls ‘inference’, and are called by others ‘remembered’ (smriti); these texts select Vedic passages and systematize and draw conclusions from them. In this translation they are called ‘tradition’. Tradition too is authoritative, but it is thought that certain traditions are. more applicable to some eras than to others; Dr Shastri said, for instance, that the Bhagavad Gita, which is a tradition, is specially suitable to the present age. It makes the Upanishads easier to understand and practise for all classes of men, whereas some parts of the original Upanishads are extremely difficult.
The Chapter of the Self comes from the Law-book of Apastamba, which is a tradition. In this chapter the Law-book quotes verses from an Upanishadic source which we do not now possess. For the historical details and the parallels with a known Upanishad, the Katha, see Dr Nakamura’s analysis translated in Appendix 1. As he says, the Apastamba, in about 300 B.C., is perhaps the first text known to us in which there is this purposeful selection of texts of revelation to express the Vedanta in clear terms. This does not mean that it was not being done already in private between teacher and pupil – in fact there are accounts of such instruction in the Upanishads themselves, where a single text is concentrated upon, and deeper and deeper realizations attained through it. But the Apastamba, like the Gita somewhat later, is a published text accessible to all, in which the procedure is clearly demonstrated.
© Trevor Leggett