Vedic Philosophy


The Vedas were originally a vocal tradition, but later were written in Sanskrit over 5000 years ago by sage Vyasa. The Sanskrit word véda “knowledge, wisdom” is derived from the root vid- “to know”. The sage Vyasa classified the primordial single Veda into four. Hence he was called Veda Vyasa, or “Splitter of the Vedas,” the splitting being a feat that allowed mortals to understand the divine knowledge of the Veda. He was the editor of the Vedic literature. The Sanskrit word Vyasa means split, differentiate, or describe; it also means editor. This title is the most popular way of referring to him.

In the modern world, we use the term “science” to identify the kind of authoritative knowledge upon which human progress is based. To the ancient people of Bharatavarsha (Greater India), the word veda had an even more profound import that the word science has for us today. That is because in those days scientific inquiry was not restricted to the world perceived by the physical senses. And the definition of human progress was not restricted to massive technological exploitation of material nature. In Vedic times, the primary focus of science was the eternal, not the temporary; human progress meant the advancement of spiritual awareness yielding the soul’s release from the entrapment of material nature, which is temporary and full of ignorance and suffering.

The Vedas (Sanskrit véda वेद, “knowledge”) are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas are apauruṣeya (which means “not of human agency” or “it is not knowledge of human invention”). They are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”), distinguishing them from other Hindu philosophical texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”). In Hindu tradition, the creation of Vedas is credited to Brahma. Vedic knowledge appeared at the dawn of the cosmos within the heart of Brahma, the lotus-born demigod of creation from whom all the species of life within the universe descend. Brahma imparted this knowledge in the form of sabda (A spiritual sound. Śábda is the Sanskrit word for “speech sound”. In Sanskrit grammar, the term refers to an utterance in the sense of linguistic performance.) to his immediate sons.

In classical Indian philosophy of language, the grammarian Katyayana stated that shabda (“speech”) is eternal (nitya), as is artha “meaning”, and that they share a mutual co-relation. According to Patanjali, the permanent aspect of shabda is sphoṭa (“meaning”), while dhvani (“sound, acoustics”) is ephemeral to shabda.

Om, or Aum, a sacred syllable of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, is considered to be the first resonating vibrational sound within an individual being. It also denotes the non-dualistic universe as a whole. In Buddhism, Om corresponds to the crown chakra and white light.

The Vedic texts or śruti are organized around four canonical collections of metrical material known as Saṃhitās, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical Vedic philosophy:

1.The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotar, or presiding priest;

2.The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;

3.The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgatar or priest that chants;

4.The Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.[9]

The individual verses contained in these compilations are known as mantras, 20000 mantras are contained. Some selected Vedic mantras are still recited at prayers, religious functions and other auspicious occasions in contemporary Hinduism.

In the ancient India, the study of the Vedas was the special prerogative of the brahmanas (the priestly and intellectual class). There were four degrees of education in Vedic knowledge that corresponded to the four ashramas of brahminical culture (the brahmachari or student ashrama, the grahastha or householder ashrama, the vanaprastha or retired ashrama and the sannyasa or renounced ashrama). The first degree of learning was the memorization of the Vedic Samhita, which consists of 20,000 mantras (verses) divided into four sections — Rg, Sama, Yajur and Atharva –that are chanted by priests in glorification of various aspects of the Supreme Being during sacrificial rituals. The second degree was the mastery of the Brahmana portion of the Vedas, which teaches rituals for fulfillment of duties to family, society, demigods, sages, other living entities and the Supreme Lord. The third degree was the mastery of the Aranyaka portion, which prepares the retired householder for complete renunciation. The fourth degree was the mastery of the Upanisads, which present the philosophy of the Absolute Truth to persons seeking liberation from birth and death.

The texts studied in the four stages of formal Vedic education are collectively called sruti-sastra, “scripture that is to be heard” by the brahmanas. However, sruti-sastra is not all there is to the Vedic literature. Chandogya Upanisad declares that the Puranas and Itihasas comprise the fifth division of Vedic study. The Puranas and Itihasa teach the same knowledge as the four Vedas, but it is illustrated with extensive historical narrations. The fifth Veda is known as smrti-sastra (“scripture that must be remembered”). Smrti-sastra study was permitted to non-brahmanas.

Traditionally, six schools of thought propagated Vedic wisdom, each from a different
philosophical perspective. Each of these perspectives or darshanas is associated with a famous sage who is the author of a sutra (code) expressing the essence of his darshana. Vyasa’s Vedanta-sutra, which carefully examines and judges the six systems of Vedic philosophy (as well as other philosophies), forms the third great body of Vedic literature after the sruti-sastra and smrti-sastra. This is known as the nyaya-sastra, “scripture of philosophical disputation.”

The sad-darshana (six philosophical views) are nyaya (logic), vaisesika (atomic theory), sankhya (analysis of matter and spirit), yoga (the discipline of selfrealization), karma-mimamsa (science of fruitive work) and vedanta (science of God realization).

It is important to understand the common Features of the Six Systems of Vedic Philosophy. The sad-darshana accept the authority of the Vedas, and thus they are classified as astika philosophies. Each darshana was codified by a great Vedic sage — nyaya by Gautama, vaisesika by Kanada, sankhya by Kapila, yoga by Patanjali, karma-mimamsa by Jaimini and vedanta by Vyasa. Because the sages drew their arguments from the same source — the Vedic sastra — their darshanas share many of the same basic philosophical principles, for instance: the self is understood to be an individual spiritual being of the nature of eternal consciousness; the self acquires a succession of physical bodies through reincarnation under the law of karma; the self suffers because of its contact with matter; the end of suffering is the goal of philosophy. A person who adheres to any one of the six systems observes the same sadhana as the followers of other systems. Sadhana consists of the basic practices of purification and self-control that is the foundation of brahminical culture.

The major philosophical differences among the systems will be summed up in the future posts.