The Vedic Philosophy–M.S. Srinivasan

Is there a philosophical element in the Vedas? The answer depends on the way we define philosophy.  If philosophy means intellectual enquiry or abstract conceptualising there is not much of this kind of philosophy in the Vedas except perhaps a few verses here and there.  But if philosophy means ideas, perceptions, intuitions and conceptions of ultimate and universal truths of God, man, world or aim of life, then we have in the Vedas a deep and profound philosophy which is the source and foundation of one of the greatest philosophical traditions of the world.  In the Vedas, Religion and Philosophy loose its distinction.  Philosophy is the direct expression of an inner religious, psychological or spiritual intuition, experience or realization in poetry.  And here again we see Vedas setting the trend and character of Indian philosophy as a whole.

The Multi-poised Absolute

We may now briefly examine the central perceptions of Vedic Philosophy.  We have already listed briefly the main discoveries of Vedic seers and discussed some of them in our earlier articles.  Let us make a brief summary of the philosophical intuitions of Vedic seers and thinkers.

The first and the most well-known statement of the Vedic seers is “The Reality is One, but the sages call it variously” Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanthi.  Though this Vedic verse is quoted frequently, the deeper significance of the verse is not fully understood.  This verse negates the traditional western conception of the Veda as a polytheism.    However we can not also say, based on this verse, Veda’s central message is monotheism.

There are all shades of religious conceptions in the Vedas from polytheism, pantheism, monotheism to transcendental monism.  The first most direct and unmistakable message we get from the Ekam sad verse is that there is One Reality and the Gods are names and forms of that Oneness.  We must note here that Gods are not the partial expression or attributes of the One.  Each God is entirely that One.  The following verse from Yajur Veda makes it very clear:

 “Agni is That, Aditya is That, Vayu is That, Chandraman is That, the bright One is That Brahman is That, Apas are That, Prajapathi is That”.

This is the reason why in many of the Vedic hymns each God is extolled as if he is the Supreme Divine.  Each God is not only the Supreme but also contains all the other Gods within himself.  This means the Divinity can not be or rather should not be confined into a single or fixed religious formula.

Depending on the cosmic or terrestial needs of creation or evolution or the needs, temperament or the stage of evolution of the individual or community, the Supreme Divine can manifest or front Himself as nature-force, a cosmic power with a specific cosmic function, a God with a fixed attribute or a personal God with a limited name and form and qualities, keeping all other attributes and qualities behind, or a universal divine Person with infinite qualities but with no specific name and form or as an impersonal featureless and formless Reality  beyond all name and form and qualities.  All these are multiple spiritual poises or potentialities of the Divine Reality in which he dwells simultaneously, but he is also something inexpressible and absolute beyond all his “aspects”, poises, attributes or qualities.

All these ideas may not be explicitly stated in the Vedas but implied in the Vedic conception of the divinity, which was developed fully in later Indian religion which was given the name Hinduism.  A great Yogi of modern India, belonging to the Saiva Sidhantha school of Hinduism, conceived the Supreme Divine as the eternal Dancer who dances simultaneously in many postures.  Each posture, when reflected in the human mind, gives birth to a unique and distinct spiritual experience, philosophy or religion.  But the Supreme Dancer, while dwelling or present wholly in all His postures, is not exhausted by any or all of them.  He is eternal and unchanging beyond the whirls and postures of His dance.

The eternal dance itself may only be a poise in His unthinkable existence.  There is the other poise of eternal and immobile silence.  Or else the silence itself may be only a poise of His Dance, whirling so fast it appears as immobility.  This is one of the spiritual intuitions of Hinduism which is present as a suggestive seed in the Vedic intuition of the Divinity.

There are passages in the Vedas which seem to express “pantheism” identification of the divine or creator with all creation.  For example a Rig Vedic verse (10.221) says “In the beginning was the Golden Seed: once born he was the Lord of all that is”.  Then we are told that this Golden Seed, who is called the Prajapathi, Lord of all creatures identified Himself with the All.  He is or became the Universe and the life-force that pervades, he both became death and immortality.  He is also the creator of earth and heaven, king and lord of all that lives and breathes and the ruler of all thing according to the Law of Truth, Sathyadharma.  Zehner describes this verse as “the fusion of theism and pantheism which is so utterly characteristic of Hinduism”.  But a monistic pantheism is not the highest conception of the Vedas.  In the well-known Purushasuktha of the Rig Veda, we find a masterful synthesis of the transcendent and immanent aspect of the Godhead, expressed in a concrete, pregnant and revealing symbolism:

“Thousand headed is Purusha, thousand-eyed and thousand footed.  Enveloping the earth on every side he exceeds it by ten fingers breath.  Purusha is indeed this.  All what has been and is yet to come and he is the Lord of immortality and of what grows by eating food – – – One quarter of him is all contingent beings, three quarters of him is what is immortal in heaven.  With three-quarters of Purusha ascended one-quarter of him came into existence again down here.  Thence he did he stride forth on every side amongst all that eats and does not eat”.

The message and the symbolism is clear. The Purusha is at once immanent and transcendent. By “one quarter” of His being, he becomes the Universe and enters into the Universe, while the rest of the “three-quarters” of Him transcends the Universe.

The Intuitive Philosophy

There are some verses in the Vedas which are quoted quite often by scholars to show that Vedas are not mere poetry and myth but contains high philosophical speculations.  One such verse is the well-known creation hymn:

“Then neither Being or Non-being existed, neither atmosphere, nor the firmament, nor what is above it.  What did it encompass? Where? In whose protection? What was water, the deep, unfaithamable.

 Neither death nor immortality was there then, no sign of night or day.  The One breathed breathless by its own power not else but this existed then.

In the beginning was darkness; enveloped in darkness; all this was but unmanifested water, whatever was, that One, coming into being, hidden by the void generated by the power of heat(Tapas).

In the beginning desire (Kama) which was the first seed of mind covered it.  Wise seers, searching in their heart, found the source of Being in the Non-being.

Their cord was extended athwart.  Was there anything below? Givers of seed there were, and powers, beneath was energy and above impulse.

Who knows truly? Who can here declare whence it was been, whence is this emanation—who know whence it has arisen?    

Whether (God) created it or whether He did not, only He who is the overseer in higher heaven knows.  He only knows or perhaps He (also) knows not” (RV, 10,120)

This is undoubtedly exalted philosophy.  But is it the work of a speculative intellect or the spontaneous expression of an inner intuition, vision or experience? This creation hymn of the Rig Veda and many such verses in the Veda which express philosophical conceptions  proceed from an intuitive mind musing on a concrete inner perception of truth and not from the speculative intellect labouring over abstract conceptions.

However, there are some verses in the Veda which seem to be the expression of an enquiry or quest, like for example the following verse in the Atharva Veda.

Tell me of the support of the Universe; who, the one among many is he in whom Adityas and Rudras and Vasus are united, in whom exists the past and future and all the worlds” (AV, X7.22)

But here also the quest seems to be more intuitive than intellectual.  There is an intuitive sense of the Unity and source of all Gods and all creation and a query who could be this unity and source.

The Continuity with the Upanishad

But the most important part of Vedic philosophy are those verses which anticipate the philosophy of Upanishad and thereby highlight the continuity between the Vedic and Upanishadic thought.  The creation hymn, Purusha Saktha, and the verses which talk about Prajapathi as the creator of the Universe, already contain the seed of the Upanishadic idea of Brahman as the one without a second and the transendent and immanent source of creation. As we have mentioned earlier Vedic thinkers were already engaged in an intuitive quest for the unity and source of all existence, which is also the Upanishadic quest.  In the verse of a Yajur Vedic seer Vena, this quest culminates in a remarkable spiritual revelation, expressed in a thought, language and style which is similar to that of Upanishad:

“Vena beholds that being, hidden in mystery in whom all find one single home; in That all this Unites; from that all issues, for the omnipresent is the warp and woof of created things”(YV, 32,8)

Similarly, the other Upanishadic concept of the Atman, the divine Self in man emerges in the following verse of the Atharva Veda:

“In the lotus of nine doors (the human mind) enveloped in three strands dwells the spirit, Atman; this knower of Brahman knows.  Free from desire it is, wise, immortal, self-existent, delighting in its own sweetness, not lacking in anything.  Knowing this Atman, wise, ageless, young, one has no fear of death”(AV, 10.8)

And finally a beautiful verse in Isna Upanishad, expressing the identity of the individual Self with the Divine Reality, the Brahman is virtually reproduced from the following verse from the Yajur Veda:

“The face of the truth is covered with a golden lid.  The purusha who in the sun, I am He; OM, the Supreme Brahman” (YV, 40, 17)

Thus we can see that there is no radical change or discontinuity in the Upanishadic philosophy from that of the Vedic.  Most of the ideas of the Upanishad are already present in the Veda.  As Zehner, one of the more perceptive among western scholars states:

“It was once fashionable to contrast the inward-looking spirituality of the Upanishad with the crass sacrificial priest-craft of the Brahmans.  This however is a gross oversimplification, for there is no hard-and-fast dividing line between Samhithas and Brahmans and Brahmans and Upanishads, they merge imperceptibly into each other—”     (Hinduism, p.50)

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