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From Rig Veda To Upanishads And Brahma Sutras

Updated: August 25, 2012 10:49 am

Conventional scholarship, especially that of Western scholars, has posited a break with the Upanishadic focus on Self and Brahman as a departure from the worship of the many devas and devatas (male and female divinities) of the four Vedas, and as well the rituals associated with the Vedic sacrifices.

This break has been described as the difference between Karma Kanda (ritual) and Jnana Kanda (speculative knowledge of Self and Brahman). Our perception is of continuity, with only a difference of emphasis. The polytheism of the four Vedas and the rituals offered up to the deities is not downgraded or rejected in the Upanishads, and the elaboration of speculative knowledge concerning Self and Brahman ending with the statement by Sankara in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras that Brahman is infinite, is intelligence and is blissful, does not contradict the worship of the Vedic deities. Indeed, one could argue that both the Upanishads and Sankara build on the former.

The Rig Veda worships 33 different devas and devatas of which Agni and Indra are the most worshipped. The Vedic ritual itself is always conducted through the worship of Agni (fire). This exaltation of Agni continues throughout the Vedic Agamic Hindu tradition of worship, if only that fire is ever present in every act of worship. The gods are now worshipped after due consecration inside temples.

Two of the oldest and most commented upon of the Upanishads are the Chandogya and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. The central themes here are more or less repeated in the other Upanishads and these two can be used as templates for an examination of the theme of continuity with the four Vedas.

As the reader would be aware, the four Vedas have their prose commentaries, the Brahmanas, which are followed by the forest treatises or Aranyakas, and finally the Upanishads. Hence, each of the older Upanishads can be seen as linked to them. There are some 108 Upanishads, some of much later date. Many are said to have been lost over a period of time. The date of the Vedas has generally been tentatively assigned to 1500 BCE and the earliest Upanishad to 800-600 BCE. These dates are to this day, tentative, and devout Hindus assign a much earlier date to the Vedas, which are considered apaurusheya (not of human origin). There is something to this belief, since the rituals and the hymns, though solemn, are also of a joyous celebratory nature and they invoke not only the presence of the deities at the time of the rituals, but also are a testimony to their continued presence in the universe.

The Brahma Sutras by Badarayana (identified as Vyasa) and the commentaries by Sankara and Ramanuja can legitimately be described as Vedanta, the culmination of the Veda. The process is not simply a chronological one, but a religious/spiritual process. The reader is advised to read these philosophers in the original, either in Sanskrit or in a good translation (George Thibaut in the Sacred Books of the East series).

The Brahma Sutras are so called because they enquire into the nature of Brahman. The work begins with the famous aphorism: adhato brahma jijnasa (Now one must inquire into Brahman).

These aphorisms have been endlessly commented upon, the most famous commentaries being by Sankara (820 CE) and Ramanuja (1077-1157). Both, whatever the minutiae of their different interpretations, are agreed on one thing: Brahman is that which is infinite, is intelligence, is blissful (Sat, Chit, Ananda). While Sankara sees the universe as the Maya of Brahman, Ramanuja sees it as the embodiment of Brahman.

While it may be relatively easy to read this into Ramanuja’s commentary, the astonishing philosophical arguments of Sankara need to be carefully studied before one understands what he means by the Maya of Brahman, and hence of Brahman’s relation to the world.

By Vijaya Rajiva

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