Vedic Literature

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Vedic Literature  (1894) 
by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay

First published in Calcutta University Magazine, March 1 and April 1, 1894. Originally delivered as presidential addresses to the Literary section of the Society for the Higher Training of Young Men. Here taken from Bankim Rachanavali (1960), compilation of the author's English works, edited by Jogesh Chandra Bagal. Source: Digital Library of India.

Vedic Literature


I had recently occasion to inspect, as an official Visitor, a Vedic Tol, the only one, I believe, in this city. I found there were nine students only on the rolls—so to speak, and of these two or three only were graduates of the University. This appeared to me to be very disheartening evidence of the slight interest taken by our educated young men in the Vedic studies. I do not mean to say that all educated Hindus should be Vedic scholars—practically this would be impossible, but I am strongly of opinion that all Hindus who are willing to go through a course of "Higher Training", as we call it, ought to possess a certain amount of knowledge, even if only second-hand knowledge, of the great Vedic Literature of our country: and that at least an appreciable proportion of them ought to be competent scholars who derive their knowledge from the original sources.

I do not forget that there are great difficulties in the way of Vedic studies. In the first place, the student of the Vedas must be a good Sanskrit scholar, and, I regret to think, that good Sanskrit scholars among our educated young men are now less numerous than they used to be before the bifurcation of studies sanctioned by the University. In the next place, not only must the student himself be a competent Sanskrit scholar, but he must also find a competent teacher for himself. By competent teacher, I mean one who has made the Vedas his special study, and has himself been trained in that study by a competent teacher. If it is rather rare to find among my educated countrymen, a good Sanskrit scholar, it is far rarer to find a duly qualified teacher. Then there is the caste difficulty—no orthodox Vedic teacher will consent to impart Vedic knowledge to a Sudra. Lastly, the life of a Vedic scholar is, in these days, a life of poverty, unless you can add to your devotion to the Vedas the energetic pursuit of some other calling more likely to soothe the pangs of hunger.

These are the difficulties in your way, but let us not forget that although a knowledge of Sanskrit is more general in this country than in Europe, there are probably more Vedic scholars in Europe than in this country. True, Europeans have not to contend with the same difficulties that we have. There are no caste distinctions there to deter the low-born Sudra from his coveted learning, and in the cold regions which are the favourite haunts of the Ocean-born Lakshmi, the pangs of hunger can hardly make themselves felt under the burden of exhaustless supply of meat and beer. What, however is more to the point is, that a race of men accustomed to solve unaided the most difficult problems of life and nature do not stand in need of teachers when any branch of knowledge has to be mastered. Most European Vedic scholars are men who have taught the Vedas to themselves. I do not mean to say that the help of such a teacher of the Vedas, as can be found among the natives of India only, would have not tended to improve the character of their Vedic knowledge. But still they are models of industry, perseverance, and energetic pursuit of knowledge, which you should keep before you when you take up in earnest such a study as Vedic Literature.

I am under the impression that the first step towards the formation of a body of Vedic scholars in this country is to create an interest in Vedic studies among the educated community. There are, no doubt, some who pursue knowledge for its own sake, but there are not many such. Many will not undertake to acquire knowledge which is not generally appreciated even by the educated; very few will undertake the trouble of communicating to others knowledge for which there is no general demand. Something, I admit, has been done of late years to create an interest in Vedic Literature, but more is needed. I have, therefore, thought proper that I should open the current year's proceedings of the literary section of this Society, by an address to you on the subject of Vedic Literature.

For, to us, it is a subject of almost vital importance. European scholars, like Professor Max Müller, have been very eloquent on the importance of the study of the Vedas, but their point of view is exclusively the European point of view, and fails to represent the vastly superior interest Vedic studies possess of us, natives of the country. The Vedas are nothing less than the basis of our entire religious and social organization. What the roots are to the tree, the Vedas are to our present elaborate religious system, and to our present complex social organization. We must begin to take a serious interest in Vedic studies.

I have occasionally met with such ignorance on this subject, even among men not wholly devoid of education, that they are under the impression that the name Veda is given to a single treatise, or to four treatises corresponding to the four Vedas. I cannot more usefully employ myself this evening than by assisting such of you as may be in want of information, to form some clear ideas as to what the Vedas are. The word Veda, as you know, is derived from the root vid, to know. Veda, then, in its primary signification means knowledge. You can from this very easily infer that there was a time when the Vedas contained all that our forefathers cared to know, or the whole body of learning that was available to them. And, then, another inference follows, viz., that the Vedas were not the production of a definite period, or of any single unit of time. They must have been the growth of centuries, of thousands of years, I may well say, if we take into consideration their bulk and variety. It is a significant circumstance too, that the Vedas themselves do not call themselves by the name. Evidently, the name Veda was given to the literature then existing, after it had been classified, arranged and adopted by the Aryan community as the sole subject of study. Even in post-Vedic literature the more common name for the Vedas was Sruti—that which has been heard. The name implies that the body of literature too which it was given was all the traditional learning of the period, handed down by oral teaching, from preceptor to disciple, generation after generation.

What was the unsystematic production of thousands of years required compilation, classification, and arrangement. The final classification and arrangement is attributed to Krishna Dwaipayana, surnamed Vyasa, but there is good reason to believe that he worked on the basis of previously existing compilations. The task he undertook was gigantic, and the success he achieved is unparalleled in the literary history of the world.

He is said to have adopted, to speak loosely at present, a fourfold division. These four divisions are known by the names of the Rik, the Yajush, the Saman, and the Atharvan. You must remember that this four-fold division does not imply that each is only a distinct branch or portion of the Veda. Each is a complete and independent Veda by itself. Brahmans are at liberty to follow only one of the four Vedas. In Bengal most Brahman families follow only one Veda. Most of us are followers of the Saman. Those Bengali Brahmans who are known as Vaidikas by way of distinction, are generally Rig-Vedi Brahmans. In the Upper Provinces, many Brahmans follow two, three, or even all four Vedas.

What is the principle of classification on which this division was based? In inquiring into this, we may, for the present, leave out of consideration the Atharvan. The earlier post-Vedic literature very frequently refers to the Vedas as three—the Trayi Vidya. The Atharvan is somewhat of a heterogeneous collection, and may have been a compilation later than the other three. There is a tradition that it was compiled, not by Krishna Dwaipayana, but by a Rishi of the great race of Angira, named Atharvan. This tradition clearly indicates a later date.

Let us, therefore, take up at present the Rik, the Yajuh, and the Sama Vedas. The word Rich, which in the nominative singular is Rik, signifies a verse. Similarly Yajush signifies prose, and Saman, which in the nominative singular is Sama, signifies "that which is or should be sung". The Rig-Veda is therefore, the metrical Veda, the Yajuh the prose Veda, and the Sama Veda is the Veda of songs. But all compositions must be either verse or prose; prose cannot be sung; hence Sama Mantras are also metrical. Not only are they metrical, but, are identical in most cases, if not in all cases, with the Rik verses. They appear to be a body of verses selected from the Rik, or from the same sources as the Rik, only arranged differently.

But that is not all the distinction. The Yajur Veda, though mainly prose, is not wholly so. The famous Satarudriya section of the Samhita is a notable exception. The fact is that the Yajur Veda prescribes the ritual to be followed in Vedic ceremonies. This is the main feature which distinguishes it from the Rik and the Sama.

The relation of the three Vedas to each other will become clearer if we call to mind what used to take place at the great Vedic sacrifices of ancient times. At the present day a single priest, or at most two, suffice for the performance of our religious ceremonies, except only in those cases in which the ceremonies still retain their Vedic character, such as the Vrishotsarga. But in the case of Vedic sacrifices of ancient India, sixteen priests were absolutely necessary. The sixteen were divided into four groups of four each, and were styled Hotris, Adharyus, Udgatris, and Brahmans.[2] The Adharyus were the officiating priests who performed the sacrifice according to the Yajur-Mantras. The Hotris recited Rik verses; the Udgatris sang the Sama verses; and the Brahmans superintended the whole and corrected mistakes.

The Atharvan is said to be independent of the other Vedas. A sacrifice could be performed on the basis of the Atharvan alone, without recourse to the other Vedas. Its object may have been to furnish a more expeditious and less costly and elaborate ritual than the composite one to which I have just referred.

Thus, we find that the requirements of the Vedic Yajnas furnished the principle which apparently guided the classification of the Vedas into four groups. I use the word group because none of the four groups consists of a single collection or of a treatise or a number of treatises of a homogeneous character. Each Veda consists of a Mantra portion, a number of treatises known as the Brahmanas, and another set of treatises or discourses known as the Upanishads. There are also a few treatises of a voluminous character known as the Aranyakas.

The Mantra portion of each of the Veda is known as its Samhita. The Rig-Veda Samhita is by far the most interesting of all. European scholars regard it as the most ancient of all, an opinion from which most native scholars will probably dissent. I do not quite understand what is intended by those who hold that this Samhita is older than the others. Is it meant that it was compiled earlier than the others? There is not a particle of evidence in support of such an assertion. The Sama Samhita is a collection made out of the same materials as the Rik, though for a different purpose; the necessity for both collections was the same, and it is reasonable to hold that both Samhitas were compiled at the same time. The case of the Yajur-Veda Samhita is still stronger. In the so-called hymns df the Rig-Veda we find repeated references to sacrifices. Is it possible that the ritual did not exist when the sacrifices existed? and that if they did exist, they were left uncompiled when the verses for recitation and chanting at sacrifices were compiled or arranged? I think not.

I believe the prevalent opinion in Europe is that the Rik Mantras were composed—not compiled, earlier than the others. This priority of origin can hardly be asserted in regard to the Sama verses, which arc generally identical with the Rik Verses. Nor can it be said of the Yajur Mantras. The evidence of language at least goes to establish that the Rik Suktas were composed, not all at the same time, but during the course of several centuries. And I have already stated my xeasons for believing that side by side with them sprang up the ritualistic mantras of the Yajur Veda. European scholars do not appear to have attached any weight to the circumstance that it was the requirements of Vedic sacrifices which guided the arrangements of the Vedic compilations, whence questions of priority or posteriority have been allowed to rise. They can legitimately rise only in the case of the Atharvan.

The Rig-Veda Samhita is of superior interest, not on account of its priority over the other Samhitas, but on account of its variety and richness of its material, and the light it throws on the religion and civilization of the Hindus several thousands of years ago. It is a collection of poetical pieces numbering over a thousand. These poems are called Suktas. European scholars call them hymns.

The current European interpretation of these Suktas is that they are hymns addressed by a rude and polytheistic people to the powers of Nature, which they deified and worshipped. The best native opinion, from the days of Yaska to the present, is that there is no polytheism in the Suktas, and that they all celebrate the glory of One Great Father of the Universe. Yaska's words are "Owing to the greatness of the Deity, the one Soul is celebrated as if it were many. The different gods are members of the one Soul." Rig-Veda texts can be cited by hundreds which distinctly put a monotheistic interpretation on the so-called Nature-worship of the Suktas. In modern days this monotheistic interpretation was put forward with great energy by the famous Dayananda Saraswati, but it is asserted by many that some of his renderings are strained or far-fetched. Another school of native Vedic scholars hold that the Suktas admit of three different interpretations, viz., one on the side of Nature-worship; a second on the Yajna or sacrificial side; and the third on the side of pure monotheism. Some of the specimens of this trilateral interpretation that I have come across appear to me to be strained and far-fetched also.

There is no question that a pure and lofty monotheism unmistakably characterizes a good number of the Suktas. European scholars surmise that the monotheistic Suktas are the productions of a later age. The Suktas that appear decidedly polytheistic are assigned to the more ancient times, when the Indian Aryans, it is believed, were a very primitive people. It is assumed that the religion of a primitive people must, as a matter of course, have been polytheistic and that monotheistic ideas are possible only to a civilized people. It is forgotten that the comparatively rude and barbarous Jews were stern and uncompromising monotheists, while the highly civilized Greeks were polytheists. It is forgotten that at the time that the uncultured tribes of Arabia adopted the monotheism preached by their illustrious Prophet, highly civilized mediaeval India had developed a marvellously ramified system of polytheistic worship.

I have no time at present to enter into the question of the comparative priority of the several Suktas. I have only to add that no cut and dry theory will suit the immense number of poems composed by different authors during a period which may possibly be counted by tens of centuries. Authors and poets separated from each other by such immense intervals of time cannot all have composed to the same plan, or with the same object; and the same hard and fast rules of interpretation cannot, therefore, suit all.

The fact is, that these so-called hymns are extremely varied and heterogeneous in their character. Some are not hymns at all. Take for instance the 95th Sukta of the tenth Mandala. It is a dialogue between a husband and his wife—the King Pururava and the celestial nymph Urvasi. The dialogue covers an allegory—but it is not a hymn at all. Take again the 34th Sukta of the same Mandala. If this is a hymn, it is a hymn addressed to the gambler's dice, and is in reality a gambler's lament, not a hymn. The 107th and 117th Suktas of the same Mandala are not hymns, but ballads in praise of liberty and charity. The 107th Sukta of the seventh Mandala is a humorous satire on the priests, who are compared to frogs. The 51st hymn of the tenth Mandala is, again, a dialogue between Agni and the other gods, and not a hymn. The 13th Sukta of the same Mandala is an address to two carts. The 3rd Sukta of the third Mandala is, again, a dialogue, not a hymn. Other hymns, again, like the great Purusha Sukta, are mere narratives, not hymns. Others again, like the celebrated 129th Sukta of the tenth Mandala, are merely lofty philosophical speculations, not hymns. Suktas which are not hymns are very numerous. Such Suktas are of the nature of ballads or lyrical poems, which in the course of time, lost their original signification and their secular character, and placed side by side with Suktas avowedly theological, acquired the same sanctity as the latter.

The question arises, if so many of the hymns were originally secular in their character, cannot the same be predicted of those Suktas which present the appearance of true hymns? I admit that this can be honestly said of good many Suktas of the latter class. If you call to mind some instances in which English poets, with whom we are all familiar, personify and apostrophize aspects of physical nature, or some lower animal, you will find that the difference between them and these Suktas is really not so great. Take, for instance, Byron's great Apostrophe to the Ocean, or Shelley's Ode to the Skylark, or some of Collins's Odes. The difference that exists is due to the genius of the Western and the Oriental languages. The latter lend themselves more easily than the cold languages of cold climes to overflow of sentiment and extravagance of expression. If you remember this, you will find no difficulty in agreeing with me that these productions have as much right to be called Suktas as the opening hymn to the Fire in the Rig-Veda Samhita, and many others that follow.[3]

I have no hesitation in admitting that a vast number of Suktas are true hymns. But there is another question which we must try to solve before we can fully comprehend the real character. I mean the question of their authorship. The orthodox Hindu opinion is that they are অপৌরুষেয়, that is, without an author, human or divine. There is, however, some authority in the Shastras for the opinion that they had a divine origin—but the general current of orthodox opinion is that they are un-born, self-existing, eternal and without a beginning. Still, a modified origin and authorship are conceded. It is conceded that these Suktas, though existing from eternity, were seen by the Rishis—seen as distinguished from composed. The word seen here is intelligible only in the sense of mental vision—for unwritten words could have no corporeal existence such as alone could be the subject of physical vision. And I can see no difference between the mental vision which results in the production of a lyric poem, and that state of mind which is denoted by the happy English word—inspiration. The concession is, therefore, a concession which concedes wholly the point in dispute. It amounts to nothing less than that the Suktas weie die productions of the inspired Rishis.

That, however, is not all. The Suktas themselves often contain clear statements by the Rishis themselves that they are the compositions of the Rishis. Dr. Muir has collected an immense number of texts to that effect in the second chapter of the third volume of the Sanskrit Texts, and I shall not here trouble you by citing any of them.

The orthodox Hindu may, therefore, safely accept the opinion that the Vedic Suktas were the productions of human authors. But this is not all. The Suktas themselves disclose, in most cases, the names of their authors. Each Sukta is prefaced by notes naming the Devata, the Rishi, and the Viniyoga of the Sukta. We have here nothing to do with the Viniyoga (use) except to strengthen the evidence in support of my previous statement that sacrificial requirements furnished the principle on which the Vedas were classified. Of the Devata I shall speak presently. I want to draw your attention now to the Rishi. The Rishi is the sage to whom the authorship of the Sukta is attributed. It would not be correct to say, as is often done, that in every case the Rishi is the author. In the 95th Sukta of the 10th Mandala—the allegorical ballad about Pururava and Urvasi, the Rishis are the royal lovers themselves. These allegorical personages could not have been the authors of the Suktas. The same remarks apply to those cases in which Indra or some such personage, real or fictitious, is both the Rishi and the Devata. Yaska's definition of a Sukta-Rishi is "যস্য বাক্যং স ঋষিঃ"; which is equivalent to saying that the speaker is Rishi. Now, authors, poets as well as others, often put the words they wish to say into the mouths of other persons real or fictitious. I have already shown that there are many hymns in the Rig-Veda Samhita in which this is the case. In these cases the Rishi is not the author—the author remains unknown to the present day. In the majority of cases the Rishi would seem to be also the author.

In the list of these Vedic authors, there are names which are unexpected, and even startling. There are Sudra Rishis and female Rishis, but I have not time to dwell on these points at present—nor to enumerate the great Brahman clans to whom the greater portion of the Vedas owe their origin.

I hasten to offer a few observations on the Devatas of the Suktas. In ordinary Sanskrit—Devata means a god, or the gods. In the notes prefixed to the Suktas, the word does not mean the god or gods glorified in the Sukta. I have spoken of a Sukta addressed to two carts; the carts are the Devata there. In that addiessed to the gambler's foe—the dice, the dice are the Devata. There is a hymn addressed to two horses (not the Aswins); the horses are the Devata. There are other Suktas of the same character. In these cases the Devata cannot mean "God". The word Devata means, as explained by Yaska, the subject of the Sukta, be it Divine, human or inanimate.

I hope we now understand something about these so-called hymns. They are the productions of human authors, composed during various stages of social progress, and on any subject, lay or theological, religious or secular, among a people gifted with a strong religious instinct. Poetry had in such a case a natural leaning towards religion; and thus it happened that the vast majority of these productions assumed the form of hymns to the powers of nature. This gives them a polytheistic appearance, as we now understand Polytheism. But when we look deeper into their meaning we find that they are only the poetical garment into which the lofty Pantheism of Vedas is decked out to catch the fancy of a highly imaginative people. They are the inspired utterances of men of genius, erroneously misconstrued by critics wanting in sympathy and breadth of view, as the utterances of a primitive people hankering after the good things of the world. The Rig-Veda Samhita should be, to every true Hindu, if not to others, an object of deep reverence and loving study. Separated as we are by countless ages from the times during which they were composed, it is only by a loving study and patient thoughtfulness that we can catch glimpses of the profound signification of these grand utterances of our glorious forefathers. In early life I stood at the foot of the Kutub Minar, wondering at the long shadow which the tall pile cast on the fields smiling in the bright morning sun. Nearly thirty years later, I find myself lost in wonder and awe at the all-enveloping shadow that the lofty heights to which the old Vedic Rishis ascended, now cast upon our vaunted modern culture. May that shadow never grow less!

Gentlemen, as yet we have gone through only a small portion of the ground we had to traverse. I have scarcely said all that I had to say about the Rig-Veda Samhita. I have said nothing as yet about the other Samhitas. The Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads remain untouched. The Vedangas and the Sutra literature also deserve some notice. But I have said as much today as your patience can stand. If I find what I have already said has interested you, I may resume the discourse at another meeting.


In my last address I said that I had more to say about the Rig-Veda Samhita than I had time to say, or you to hear, on that occasion. I propose, therefore, to begin this address with some further observations on that Samhita.

The Rig-Veda constitutes the earliest[4] record of those religious ideas of which the latest, though not, perhaps, the most legitimate, development is the present Puranic Hinduism. It is, therefore, to us a question of great moment to ascertain for ourselves what those religious ideas were. I say, for ourselves, because I consider it unsafe in cases like the present to accept unquestioned the views of foreign scholars however learned, for all their learning in regard to the past does not save them from gross ignorance about the present. This object, viz., a clear comprehension of the religion of the Vedas, is what I recommend to be kept steadily in view by young men aiming at the higher training which it is the business of this society to impart. That that religion is not polytheistic, I have already said, nor is it monotheistic in the sense in which monotheism is understood in Europe. Professor Max Müller, finding himself forced to face this difficulty in characterizing it, has coined a new word—henotheism, and given it that name. In my humble opinion what he calls henotheism is but little removed from polytheism itself.

The Vedic Rishis appear to me to have fully grapsed the idea that there was an Omnipotent and Omnipresent Author of the Universe, and that He was One and Undivided. They did not call him Iswara, or Lord, as we now do. In the Brahmanas and Upanishads, He has a loftier name—Atman or Paramatman, the great Soul, or Living Principle of the Universe. The later Vedic Philosophy, that of the Upanishads, formulated the doctrine that the Universe, though His creation, was created out of His essence, and is a part of Him. The Universe is in Him, but He is not the Universe. It was a part of Him and transformed into the changeful Universe by His Will or His Maya. This was a conception rarely distinctly formulated by the Vedic poets, as it was by the Vedic philosophers, but it was equally present to the mind of the poet and that of the philosopher. Now, if the Universe, if all the perceptible phenomena which constitute the Universe, are in Him, or are a part of Him, the Powers of Nature are also portions of His essence, or manifestations of His Energy. To contemplate or to glorify the Powers of Nature was to contemplate and glorify His attributes. The Infinite is not realizable to our minds in its Infinity. We can bring our mind into close contact with it only by contemplating those finite portions of Infinite Energy which we can perceive and comprehend. This is what the Vedic poets tried to do. Modern science understands that solar heat causes water to vaporise, that the aqueous vapour is accumulated and kept suspended in the atmosphere, till by cooling of the aerial temperature condensation takes place, clouds are formed, and under proper conditions, the aqueous vapour is returned to the earth in torrents of rain. But the Vedic poets know but little of the physical causes which produce rain. Allow me to say this with due deference to those native scholars who hold that the omniscient Vedic Rishis knew all that modern science has unveiled. They knew little, I think, of the process by which rain-giving clouds were formed and then dissolved into showers of rain. They knew only that He who had made all things, also gave us the rain—as is certainly the case, and they sung the praises of God the Rain-giver. They gave God the Rain-giver a distinct name, to distinguish His rain-giving attribute from His other attributes. He was Indra. The root Ind signifies to rain, and the particle র is added to signify the giver of it. Similarly the root rud, from which we have the word রোদন, one in such ordinary use now, means to howl, to cry. By adding to it the same suffix, র, we get Rudra, the god who, in the familiar language of an English poet, "rides on the whirlwind and directs the storm"; not a Storm-God. When the Vedic poets glorify Agni, they glorify not the physical phenomenon known as Fire, or Flame, or Combustion, but the great Father of heat and light, whose luminous manifestation in the heavens is the solar Fire, the Electrical Fire in the mid-air—and on earth, the terrestrial fire which burnt down vast forests, cooked the Rishi's food, and consumed his offerings. Fire is also the great Purifying agent, and the Vedic poets when they sing of Infinite Purity call him Agni. The offerings to the gods—or to God, are thrown into the Fire, that the great Purifier may accept it as purified through His own purifying energy.

On no other theory can we explain the circumstances the same Sun was adored under such various names and various aspects as Surya, Savita, Pusha, Vishnu, Mitra etc. It is this view that Yaska takes when he says that the "One Soul (Atman) is celebrated as many", and it is this view only which will explain the singular circumstance that each Vedic Deity is praised as supreme God, a circumstance that has induced Professor Max Müller to coin the word Henotheism.

I wish to draw your attention to another matter, which I consider to be a misconception of some serious importance, and which, I am afraid, I must be irreverent enough to style the heliomania of European scholars. Nothing in the shape of interpretation will satisfy some of our Western professors, except the reduction of every Vedic legend, allegory, or poem to a solar myth. You must guard yourself against the seductive influences of these far-fetched deductions from the undoubted truths of Comparative Philosophy. A single instance will suffice to explain what I mean. You may remember that on the occasion of the Vedic sacrifices, the sacrificial fire was obtained by rubbing together two pieces of wood against one another; these pieces of wood were called Arani. Of the two one is styled a male Arani and the other a female, by a figure of speech a parallel to which is furnished by the language applied by mechanics to screws. In the Yajur-Veda Samhita, the male screw is named Pururavas, and the female Urvasi. The relation of the two Aranis is the subject of an allegorical Sukta (the ninety-fifth) in the tenth Mandala of the Rig-Veda,—a Sukta evidently intended to lament the decadence of Vedic Yajnas, which the poet feared would lead to the perpetual separation of the two Aranis. That the Aranis were meant is clearly shown by Urvasi's words. She bids Pururavas remember that he used to give her three embraces daily. The three embraces, evidently, refer to the three fires, Garhapatya, Ahavaniya and Dakshinagni. Urvasi's parting advice to Pururavas is to perform the homa. This Sukta, then, is clearly an allegory about the two Aranis. But hear what Professor Max Müller has to say about the Sukta. "That Pururavas is an appropriate name of a solar hero requires hardly any proof. Pururavas meant ... endowed with much light; for though rava is generally used of sound, yet the root ru, which means originally to cry, is also applied to colour, in the sense of a loud or crying colour, i. e., red[5] (. . . . Sanskrit ravi, sun). Besides, Pururavas calls himself Vasishtha, which, as we know, is a name of the Sun; and if he is called Aida, the son of Ida, the same name is. . . . (also) given to Agni, the fire."[6] The Professor further explains that Urvasi stands for Ushas, or the Dawn, and thence infers that this Sukta recites a solar myth.

The force of heliomania could no further go. If etymology is to decide the matter, why cannot we accept the ordinary signification of the root ru, viz., to sound, which would give us the full sounding Arani? For the ungreased wood, no doubt, caused a loud sound in friction. Vasishta is a word the etymology of which can be made to yield many significations, several of which will apply to the Arani wood. But the name Aida is decisive. Ida is a name given to the earth, as any lexicon will tell you. Aida—earth-born, is a name which may well be given to a bit of wood, or to terrestrial fire, but cannot, by any stretch of philological legerdemain, be made to apply to the sun. That so eminent a philologist as Professor Max Müller should overlook these considerations, and should also overlook the important fact that on the sun and dawn theory the three embraces cannot be explained, shows how his energetic pursuit of solar allegories into every nook and corner of ancient mythology vitiates his conclusions.

I have dwelt on this comparatively unimportant matter for a special reason. I do not come here to pose as a teacher of the Vedas;—my attainments certainly do not entitle me to that office. But as the President of the Literary Section of your Society, I have another duty to perform. I owe it to you that I should point out for your benefit, so far as I am able, the dangers which beset the educated student. One of the dangers against which I must warn the student of Vedic Literature is the tendency to accept unquestioned the dicta of foreign orientalists. Let us give them the honour which is unquestionably their due, but let us also exercise our judgment as to what is true or false. The study of no literature—however patient the study and however valuable the literature,—is of any worth, unless you bring to that study a critical spirit. Approach the Vedas in the spirit of reverence due to them from a Hindu, but study them in the spirit of a respectful and appreciative critic. If they are a Divine revelation, you can convince yourselves that they are such only by a thoroughly critical and appreciative study. If a great Pandit should tell you that the Vedas are eternal, do not believe him unless you can find reasonable evidence in the Vedas themselves of their eternal existence; and if Professor Max Müller should tell you that the Vedic mythology is nothing but a series of Solar myths, never believe him unless you find, according to your own lights, that that is the only rational explanation which it admits of. Never surrender your judgment to authority in matters like these.

The writings of no European orientalist are more popular among the natives of India than those of Professor Max Müller; and that they are deservedly popular is unquestionable. His errors are, therefore, the more dangerous to us; and the most notable of his errors is what I have called his heliomania. By all means accept what help you can from his writings and those of other foreign orientalist, but examine their conclusions by your own lights before you accept them. Treat great native Vedic scholars, from Sayanacharjya down to Dayananda Saraswati and Satyabrata Samasrami, in the same spirit. Think for yourself, even though your independence of judgment should lead you to occasional error. Prefer thoughtfulness even when it leads to error, to intellectual imbecility.

I have been obliged to devote so much of the limited time at our disposal to a consideration of the Rig-Veda Samhita, that I have scarcely any left for the other Samhitas. I do not regret it, as the Rig-Veda Samhita is not only the most important of the Samhitas, but it is, in a great measure, typical of the rest. I prefer to devote the little time left us this evening to a brief survey of the vast field of Vedic Literature.

And, first of all, let me offer a few observations about the Vedic Sakhas. Not only are there the four Vedas, but also different recensions of each Veda. I told you in my last address, that the Vedas were originally handed down by oral teaching for many generations. Now, many of you are, no doubt, aware how largely unwritten texts are liable to variations and interpolations. Even written literature, when not printed, is not free from the dangers which arise from the ignorance and carelessness of copyists and the mischievous interference of interpolators. Even in the case of a comparatively modern Sanskrit poem like the Meghaduta—a short poem of about a hundred slokas, it is difficult to say at the present day how many slokas it originally consisted of. It may be amusing to you to know that in the same year, only the past year, Pandit Hrisikesha Sastri published an edition of this poem, and Mr. Barada Charan Mitra a translation. Pandii Hrisikesha's edition consists of only ninety-four slokas, while Mr. Mitra has translated one hundred and eighteen. Yet both are highly educated Sanskrit scholars to my knowledge. No one will dispute that the Meghaduta belongs to the age of written literature, and if this has been the fate of a short poem by the greatest of Indian poets, and composed, probably, about fourteen hundred years ago, and unquestionably belonging to the age of written literature, what may not have happened to the great unwritten literature of those far more ancient times into the obscurity of which the light of history seeks in vain to penetrate? Take the case of the work which next to the Vedas, exercises the greatest influence on the Hindus, and is regarded by them with the greatest reverence,—I mean the Mahabharata. In the Anukramanika prefixed to that vast collection it is stated that Vyasa's original work—excluding the episodes, consisted of twenty-four thousand slokas. Making the very reasonable assumption that the episodes cannot have exceeded in bulk half of the principal portion, we may safely put down the number of slokas in the original Mahabharata somewhere at thirty-six thousand, that is, seventy-two thousand verses. Even this is a figure more suited to the literary annals of some intellectual Brobdignag than those of the ordinary human race. But the modern Mahabharata is found to contain not less than one hundred and six thousand slokas, or two hundred and twelve thousand verses, that is, about thrice the quantity of matter in the original work!

We may be certain that the unwritten Vedic Samhitas suffered a good deal in this way, and in very early times variations and accretions took place which gave rise to the different recensions known as the Sakhas. The danger appears to have been guarded against on an early day. Even in the time of Saunaka, the great sage to whom among others the Mahabharata, as we have it now, was recited in the forest of Naimisha, the number of words, nay even letters in the Rig-Veda Samhita, had been counted and it is noted in the Anukramanika—the number of words was 153,826 and the number of letters 432,000.

That, however, was not all. The enumeration and registration of words and letters may serve to prevent interpolations, but not variations. To prevent alterations and variations the Pada-Patha and the Krama-Patha were devised. The Pada-Patha consisted in reading the text without the Sandhi combinations, so that each word was pronounced by itself, divested of its combination with that which preceded, or that which followed it. Thus "অগ্নিমীলে" is in the Pada text, "অগ্নিম্ ঈলে," "দেবমৃত্বিজং" is "দেবম্ ঋত্বিজম্" and so on. The Krama Patha is of two kinds—the Varna Krama and the Pada Krama. The first verse in the Rig-Veda Samhita read according to Pada Krama is, "অগ্নিম্ ঈলে—ঈলে পুরোহিতং দেবম্—দেবম্ ঋত্বিজং." The Varnakrama Patha is অগ্নি গ্লিমী মীলে লেপু—and so on. There are other devices also; such as the Jata Patha, and the Ghana Patha, but these also follow in the same line.

Now, we may well believe that these precautions against interpolations and variations were not taken till a considerable amount of mischief had already been done. It is quite possible that other causes—such as the caprice, or the intellectual convictions of particular teachers—led to the multiplication of Sakhas, which were at one time so numerous that one is tempted to believe that there is some exaggeration in the statements handed down to posterity. The Muktikopanishad states that the Rig-Veda had twenty-one Sakhas, the Sama Veda had one hundred and nine, the Atharvan fifty, and the Yajur Veda not less than one thousand. If such a vast number of Sakhas ever existed, which I doubt very much, most of them would appear to have been lost at an early period. No doubt the law of the survival of the fittest operated here, as it does elsewhere, and only the most approved Sakhas have lived down to the present day. The names of only thirteen Sakhas of the Sama Veda have been handed down to posterity, and even of these eleven have disappeared. The Kauthumi, followed in Upper India, and the Ranayani, followed in the South, alone survive. The thousand Sakhas of the Yajur Veda have now dwindled down to twenty-three, but the Yajur Veda has had a history in this respect more remarkable than the other Vedas. While there was,—in the case of the other Vedas, only variation, here there was a Reformation. Yajnavalkya was the Reformer. There are in fact two Yajur Vedas, the Black and the White, the unreformed and the reformed, each with a number of Sakhas indicating variations subsequent even to Yajnavalkya's reformation. To explain the schism, which led to the reformation, a legend has been invented about some Tittiris (little birds, from whom the Black Yajur Veda is also called the Taittiriya Samhita) and the Sun assuming the form of a horse (Vajin, from which the White Yajur Veda is called also the Vajasaneyi[7] Samhita). The legend will not bear repetition, but it indicates a schism between Vaisampayana, the teacher of the Black Yajur Veda and his disciple Yajnavalkya. The disciple dissented from the principles of his teacher.

One of the results of Yajnavalkya's reformation was that the explanatory or supplemental matter was separated from the mantras and collected into a separate compilation. Such is the origin of the famous Satapatha Brahmana. But Yajnavalkya's reformation did not of course succeed in putting an end to the variations in reading and teaching which had led to the formation of Sakhas. The Black Yajur Veda has still not less than six and the White Yajur Veda has still not less than seventeen sakhas. Of these the Madhyandini Sakha is the one now mostly followed in these provinces. I may give you a sketch of its contents hereafter.

The lesson I beg you to learn from the few observations which I have offered in regard to variations in unwritten literature is the necessity of carefully examining every text that invites your attention on account of its importance. A single illustration may suffice to convince you. There is a Rik in the eighteenth Sukta of the tenth Mandala of the Rig-Veda Samhita which runs thus—"আরোহন্তু জনয়ঃ যোনিমগ্রেঃ." This was varied, probably inadvertently, and not through the unscrupulous malice of the priesthood, as a foreign critic most uncharitably assumes, and was found in comparatively modern times to run as follows, "আরোহন্তু জনয়ঃ যোনিমগ্নেঃ"; and this slight variation from অগ্রেঃ into অগ্নেঃ led to a disastrous consequence,—the Rik was laid hold of as sanctioning the burning of widows on their husband's funeral pyre. This is only a single instance of the danger to which an uncritical study of the ancient texts has led to, and may still lead to.

Unwritten literatures have probably existed in other countries also, but in point of vastness and importance the unwritten literature of no other country can bear any comparison with that of India. The late invention of writing, the unwillingness to substitute written instruction for the old traditional oral teaching, and the intense literary activity of Ancient India, have, no doubt, contributed to render the unwritten literature of this country so voluminous. That literature, whether Vedic or post-Vedic, would be Utterly useless to the student, whether for religious or historical or literary purposes, if he did not bring to his study a critical spirit, and if in his veneration for what is undoubtedly ancient, he forgot to distinguish between the genuine and the adulterated article, to separate the wheat from the chaff. I must also add the warning, however, that it is possible to carry this critical spirit too far, and end by questioning the genuineness and antiquity of everything belonging to Ancient India. Our Western teachers, very often, I am sorry to say, err in this direction, but I beg you to remember that what is excusable in a Weber or a Whitney, as the result of prejudices which critics of a foreign race, unacquainted with the country, can never wholly set aside, would be unpardonable in a Hindu. While, therefore, you have to guard, on the one hand, against a blind acceptance so common among our orthodox learned men, of every text you meet with as the genuine production of the ancient sages, and every interpretation of the texts that has been handed down from preceptor to disciple for generation and generation, as the correct interpretation; you have also to protect yourself on the other hand, from the equally unreasoning assumption that falsehood or fraud underlies every text in the Sastras which does not fit into your prejudices. On this subject I cannot do better than quote the words of Professor Goldstücker, himself one of the most distinguished of European orientalists, and one of the very few among them who were or are capable of entertaining broad views on the Indian Literature and History. "If the creed of an individual," says that great scholar, "is founded on texts held sacred and authoritative, it is a national creed. No nation can surrender it without faying the axe to its own root. For religion based on texts embodies the whole history of the nation which professes it. It is the shortest abbreviation of all that ennobles the national mind, is most clear to its memory and most essential to its life."[8]

Therefore, I say, do not lose your reverence for the past; it is on the past that you must plant your foot firmly, if you wish to mount high in the future. You are not a race of savages who have no past to remember; you cannot dissever yourselves in a day from the associations and influences of a past which extends over at least five hundred centuries:—You cannot annihilate in a day a past national existence which has survived the annihilation of hundreds of empires, of hundred systems of religion, and which has surveyed unconcerned the downfall and ruin of many kindred civilizations. I have to make my warning so emphatic because the general tendency of European scholars, who have so great an influence over you, is to decry your past history, to call for its virtual erasure from your memory, and to lead you in the direction opposite to that for which Professor Goldstücker has pleaded so eloquently. Allow me to quote as an illustration a passage from Professor Max Müller's writings. Referring to the variation in the text আরোহন্তু জনয়ঃ যোনিমগ্রে, to which I have just had occasion to call your attention, the Professor writes, "This is perhaps the most flagrant instance of what can be done by an unscrupulous priesthood. Here have thousands and thousands of lives been sacrificed, and a fanatical rebellion threatened on the authority of a passage which was mangled, mistranslated, and misapplied."[9]

There never has been a stronger censure passed on the Brahmans of India. If it is deserved, the sooner we Brahmans disavow our caste, the better for us. The sooner the other Hindus cast off the Brahman's yoke—for still Brahmanical ordinances rule India—the better for them. The sooner we dissever ourselves with that great past in which the Brahmans arc the most prominent figure, the better for us all. But is the censure deserved? It never struck the Professor that the slight change from অগ্রেঃ into অগ্নেঃ might have proceeded from the thousand and one accidents which vary the reading in unwritten literature, and even in written literature. It never struck the Professor that it was rather too much to attribute this ferocious blood-thirstiness to that priesthood, who of all mankind are the most tender towards human life, and who treat even animal life with a tenderness which other races fail to display towards their fellow men. It never struck him that the charge of thirsting for feminine blood cannot be brought with good grace against men who were the only legislators, or interpreters of the law, who have ever treated the taking of a woman's life as crime more heinous than ordinary homicide. As a Brahman, as an humble member of the caste, thus vituperated, as a descendant however unworthy, of that great priesthood who formed the noblest intellectual aristocracy that the world has ever seen, I may be pardoned if I venture to call on the great German scholar to count up the victims of the Inquisition, add to them the slaughtered thousands of St. Bartholomew's day and the Sicilian Vespers, and then add again the untold millions who fell in the crusades; and then lay his hand upon his heart and say, if he cannot recollect instances of priestly unscrupulousness more flagrant than he can lay at the door of the Brahmans of India.

And now let us resume our survey of the Vedic Literature, in connection with which, let me here acknowledge most cordially, that no man has laid us under a greater debt of gratitude for his services in its cause than Professor Max Müller himself.

After the Samhitas, come the Brahmanas. You can well conceive that in the course of time the meaning of the Suktas of the Vedic Samhitas should come to be less intelligible to the Vedic student than they used to be to those who were nearer in point of time to the ages in which they were composed. I doubt whether the hymns even when composed were so composed as to readily disclose their meaning. In an age in which the bent of the national mind was to see in the vast forces of nature evidence of the Might of the great Architect of all, to view and contemplate each of these forces separately as manifestations of His energy, to personify and adore it, the language of the adorers necessarily assumed a form in which an exterior veil of physiolatry had to be penetrated before the listener could obtain a glimpse of the great Formless and Invisible Shadow of Glory within. The deeper signification of the Suktas became more and more obscure in the course of time, while side by side with this obscuration of the spiritual significance, the formal and ritualistic worship received enormous development These causes gave rise to the Brahmanas, treatises intended to explain the Mantra portion, to indicate the uses of the Mantras, and to give fuller details about the ritual. Such portions of the Brahmanas as used to be recited in the forests went by the name of Aranyaka. And such portions of the, Brahmanas or Aranyakas as treated of the nature and attributes of God are known as Upanishads.

The Rig-Veda has two Brahmanas, the Sankkayana or Kaushitaki, taught by the Rishi Kaushitaka, and the Aitareya. The Tandya Brahmana is the Sama Veda Brahmana. According to the authority of Pandit Satyabrata Samasrami, the Sama Veda Brahmana is divided into forty sections, the first twenty-five of which are called the Tandya, or Panchavinsa Brahmana; the five sections which follow are called the Sadvimsa Brahmana; the 31st and 32nd are entitled the Mantra Brahmana, and the last eight form the Chhandogya Upanishad.

The Black Yajur Veda, also known as the Taittiriya Samhita, and containing as already suggested, matter properly belonging to a Brahmana, has also an independent Brahmana known as the Taittiriya. I have already referred to the Satapatha Brahmana which belongs to the White Yajur Veda. The Brahmana of the Atharva Veda is the Gopatha.

The Upanishads form the most interesting portion of the Vedic Literature. They are very numerous, and many of them are comprised within the Brahmanas. Yet it is beyond question that the age of the Upanishads is later than that of the ritualistic portions of Brahmanas. The Upanishads represent the final portion of the Vedic Literature, and is therefore often called the Vedanta. I have already explained how the elevated monotheism of the Samhitas became lost to later generations in the hard crust of Nature-Worship under which it was imbedded, and how erroneous interpretations of the Samhitas led to an inordinate development of the Vedic ritual. Formal religion usurped the place of the religion of the heart. Among a people in whom the spirit of progress was dead, such a state of things would have led to the stagnation of all thought, and to national degradation and decay. But the intellectual energy of the early Aryans of India was not yet dead. The best and most cultivated intellects rose in rebellion against the grinding tyranny of formal Vaidikism. There was more than one systematic and organized rebellion. The one most prominently recognized in modern History is the Buddhistic movement. Another was headed by those who preached the doctrine that Bhakti was superior to Karma as a means of salvation. But the earliest and most efficacious of these revolts against ritualism was the rise of the Philosophy of the Upanishads. This was a revolt from within, not from without like Buddhism and Bhaktivada, and therefore the philosophical literature of the Upanishads was easily absorbed into the then existing Vedic Literature as a portion of itself. It respected ritualism, while it sought to interpret the Vedic doctrine of the all-informing Paramatma or Great Soul of the Universe. It forms the connecting link between the polymorphous monotheism of the Samhitas, and the polytheistic monotheism of the Puranas. Some of you feel inclined to laugh at the phrase "Polytheistic monotheism", and it has certainly the appearance of a paradox, but such attention as I have been able to give to the Puranas, has convinced me that the Puranic religion is in reality a monotheism, and that the Puranas never lose sight of the great central idea in Religion that there is only one God, and that the hundreds of objects of worship whose merits they celebrate are only anthropomorphic representations of His various attributes.

The Upanishads are, as I have said, very numerous. The Muktikopanishad enumerates by name one hundred and eight as superior to the rest.

The total number must have been vastly larger. Not less than two hundred Upanishads belong, or belonged, to the Atharva Veda alone. I say "belonged", because a large number of Upanishads are now lost. The Upanishads of the Atharvan are believed to be comparatively modern productions. The celebrity which the Upanishads acquired, and the very small size of them must have encouraged their unlimited manufacture down even to the post-Vedic times. The Muktika itself is apparently a rather modern production; so must also be the Ramatapani and Gopalatapani mentioned by it, which latter mentions the Gopis of Vrindavana, and cannot therefore be older than the Vishnu Purana. Nay, Pandit Satyabrata Samasrami mentions even an Allopanishad, or the Upanishad of Allah, the shameless production of some sycophant of the Mussalman rulers of India.

Nevertheless a large number of Upanishads must be of very ancient date—integral portions of the Vedic Brahmana treatises. The Upanishads like the Brahmanas, are classed under the different Vedas. The Muktika gives a list of ten Upanishads which are considered as superior to the rest, or as the best of the hundred and eight already referred to. There are the Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and the Vrihadaranyaka. There is no doubt that two more, viz., the Kaushitaki, and the Swetaswatara are also very ancient and as philosophical treatises, of equal merit with the ten above named. It is of these twelve that we possess commentaries by Sankara, and it is to the authority of these twelve that he repeatedly refers in his Commentary on the Vedanta Sutra.

The Kaushitaki and the Aitareya belong to the Rig-Veda, and are por­tions of the Brahmanas of the same name. The Chhandogya and Kena belong to the Sama Veda. The Chhandogya, as already stated, is a continuation of the Tandya Brahmana. The Kena is also known as the Talabakara. The Taittiriya, the Katha and the Swetaswatara Upanishads belong to the Black Yajur Veda, and the Isa Upanishad and the Vrihadaranyaka belong to the White Yajur Veda. Of these, the Taittiriya Upanishad is a part of the Taittiriya Aranyaka. The Isa Upanishad forms a part of the White Yajur Veda Samhita itself. The Vrihadaranyaka is a portion of the Satapatha Brahmana. The Mundaka, and Mandukya and Prasna Upanishads belong to the Atharvan, The Muktikopanishad assigns to the Mandukya Upanishad, the pre-eminence among all the Upanishads. The famous Gaudapadiya Karika is "a commentary on this Upanishad, and Sankaracharya has also furnished a Bhashya.

This is but a dry and uninteresting catalogue of names. There is scarcely time this evening to allow me to give you an idea of their character. I shall be happy, however, to place before you a brief sketch of the contents of some of them on a future occasion, should you continue to feel an interest in the subject. The Upanishads are the glory of ancient Indian Literature. There are those—very competent judges—who set a higher value on them than on any other branch of Indian learning. A great German writer, (Schopenhauer) writing about some Latin translation of the Upanishads, says, "From every sentence deep, original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high, holy and earnest spirit... In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life; it will be the solace of my death!" Let us who may if we choose study the originals, hope that they will be to us also the solace of our lives; and the solace, too, of our deaths!

  1. A presidential address, delivered to the Literary Section of the Society for the Higher Training of Young Men, on Friday, 9th February, 1894.
  2. ব্রহ্মা, not ব্রাহ্মণঃ।
  3. Byron's magnificent address to the Setting Sun in Manfred is an instance in point. I quote it below:—

    ———Glorious Orb! the idol
    Of early nature, and the vigorous race
    Of undiseased mankind, the giant sons
    Of the embrace of angels, with a sex
    More beautiful than they, which did draw down
    The erring spirits who can ne'er return.
    Most glorious orb! that wert a worship, ere
    The mystery of thy making was reveal'd!
    Thou earliest minister of the Almighty,
    Which gladden'd, on their mountain tops, the hearts
    Of the Chaldean shepherds, till they pour'd
    Themselves in orisons! Thou material God!
    And representative of the Unknown——
    Who chose thee for his shadow! Thou chief star!
    Centre of many stars! which mak'st our earth
    Endurable, and temperest the hues
    And hearts of all who walk within thy rays!
    Sire of the seasons! Monarch of the climes,
    And those who dwell in them! for near or far,
    Our inborn spirits have a tint of thee,
    Even as our outward aspects;—thou dost rise,
    And shine, and set in glory. Fare thee well!

    If this address to the Sun were translated into the Vedic Sanskrit, and Vedic forms of expression, it would, to many, present the appearance of a Vedic hymn.

  4. The Yajur-Veda and the Sama-Veda Samhita need not be taken into account for reasons stated in my last address.
  5. Ravi, I may state here, is indeed considered to be derived from the root ru, but ru signifies motion also; Ravi is he who moves (in die heavens).
  6. "Comparative Mythology"—Chips from a German Workshop (1868), ii, 104. Ed.
  7. It is also said that Yajnavalkya was surnamed Vajasaneya, whence the Samhita is called Vajasaneyi.
  8. Literary Remains, Vol. II, p. 41.
  9. Max Müller's Selected Essays, (1881), Vol. I, p. 335.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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