Vedic Era and the foundations of Hinduism

Picture by author. Taken in 2018.

The Vedas are so emblematic of the Indian Subcontinent’s civilization and development that a whole era of Indian Subcontinent is referred to as the Vedic Era. So, let us first delve on what the Vedas really are.

The Vedas are believed to be the oldest religious scriptures on earth and are considered as the epitome and the most sacred scripture of Hindu Religion. The word Veda means knowledge or wisdom and hence, Vedas are thought to contain fundamental knowledge encompassing all aspects of life.

The Vedas are classified into four volumes: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda, Rig Veda being the oldest. Each Veda further consists of four components: Samhitas (collection of prayers, mantras and benedictions), Brahmanas (collection of commentaries on the ritual), Aranyakas (theologies) and Upanishads (philosophical narratives and dialogues). Samhita is a collection of hymns and mantras while Brahmanas include the various religious precepts and duties. Aranyakas are the forest texts, serving as a medium for meditation for ascetics who live in forests and deal with mysticism and symbolism. The Upanishads form the concluding portions of the Veda and are therefore called the “Vedanta”, meaning the end of the Veda. 

Now comes the fascinating (and often heatedly debated) aspect of the Vedas. So, when were these Vedas first written? 

We have to understand that the Vedas are primarily the knowledge in the form of hymns and chants, and the transmission of knowledge was in oral form for countless years, before they were finally penned down. And when the Vedas were finally inscribed, it was not one author that finished writing it. Vedas were continually written and added by authors spanning several generations. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Vedas were first written.

However, this again begets another question – when was the notion of the Vedas first conceived?

To comprehend this, we first need to understand the concept of two words: Shruti and Smriti. Shruti (what is heard) is the divine revelation that was revealed in deep meditation to seven ancient sages known as the Sapta Rishis. Shruti is considered both eternal and unquestionable truth and orally transmitted from one generation to another. Smriti (what is remembered) is a body of texts traditionally written down from the remembered accounts and are usually attributed to authors. Vedas are considered as Shruti whereas Puranas, Epics (like Mahabharat, Ramayana), and other forms of historical, philosophical, and mythological accounts are considered Smriti. And since Vedas are considered to be the divine revelations received by sages in deep meditation, it is difficult to know the absolute timeline of the origin of the Vedas. In fact, if we purely go with mythology, the Vedas –  as they are primarily in the form of hymns and chants –  are thought to reproduce the exact sounds of the universe itself at the moment of its creation, and are thus considered eternal and ever-present right from the beginning. And this goes in line with the notion of considering Hinduism as a Sanatan Dharma or Eternal truths and teachings.

But remember the Aryas (Aryans) we talked about in our previous article? It was them who brought the Vedas into the Indian Subcontinent. So, tracing the roots of the Arya people and the similarity of Vedas with Zoroastrianism Avesta, many historians note that some of the chants of the Vedas (mainly the Rig Veda) must have originated even before the arrival of the Aryans in India (that is, before 1800 – 1700 BC). And as the oral form of chants and teachings were put into the written form over a wide timespan, spanning several years, with different sections added at different portions of time, the Vedas are usually considered to have been written between 1500 BC – 300 BC. 

The profound effect the Vedas had on the Indian Subcontinent is visible even today. It was during the Vedic era the Caste System was developed in the Indian Subcontinental societies. The caste system is thought to have derived from a hymn found in the Vedas related to the deity Purusha, who is considered as the first human in Vedic traditions. The four castes –derived from the Purusha –  were assigned different roles in the societies, with Brahmins constituting the priestly class, Kshatriyas –  the warrior class, Vaishyas –  the trading class, and Shudras –  the working class. 

While one could make an argument about the caste system being a form of diversification of labor when it was first created, one cannot deny the still prevalent influence and insidious effect of the caste system in the Indian Subcontinent. Although discrimination on the basis of Caste System is legally banned and penalized in India and Nepal (two countries with Hindu majority), the caste system is still a reality and is very much part of the rituals and the religious fabrics even today. 

While this said caste system is a very influential and often controversial aspect attached to the Vedic era, one cannot simply ignore the richness and positive influence of other important breakthroughs that were also the products of the Vedic era –  the ones that would, over time, go on to have their influences even outside the realms of the Indian Subcontinent. It was the Vedic era, after all, that also gave rise to Yoga and Meditation, two of the important and ever so relevant practices important in today’s world. Ayurveda, which is considered as an influential alternative form of medicine, also traces its roots to the Vedic era. 

Apart from these major influences, the Vedic era is also noted for its contribution to Mathematics, Astronomy, and Astrology. It would not be entirely wrong however, to believe that the most profound effect the Vedic era had was in the aspects of the scriptures, rituals, and traditions, which led on to the formation of the most followed religion in the Indian Subcontinent – that is the Hinduism. 

Hinduism, from a far off general observation, seems like a religion along the line of Polytheism, meaning with several gods and goddesses, but at the deeper level, at least if we consider the Upanishads (the end section of the Vedas), even Hinduism follows the path of Monotheism. 

The Upanishads talk about two important concepts: Brahman and Aatman. Brahman refers to the universal soul and Aatman represents the individual soul, which itself is made out of the universal soul Brahman. All other worldly things –  including human beings, animals, and even the gods and goddesses are considered to be different forms of Brahman. So, the Hindu gods and goddess, in accordance to the Upanishads, can be considered as different avatars of Brahman, and the Brahman alone is considered as the single supernatural entity. 

The three commonly referred gods of Hinduism – Brahma –  the creator (not to be confused with Brahman the universal soul), Vishnu –  the preserver, and Shiva –  the destroyer, are also different avatars of the Brahman. The unification of these three central gods, along with various Vedic gods, other local deities, and gods and goddesses together would culminate in the form of Hindu Religion that we know of today.

The philosophy of Hinduism is still very much central to the lives and beliefs of many followers in the Vedic influenced societies. To understand how these beliefs still direct the lives of many followers, we need to understand the meaning of four important concepts from the Vedas that are central to the philosophy of Hinduism: Samsara, Dharma, Karma, and Moksha. 

Hindu Philosophy believes in the concept of reincarnation. The life that you are currently living is one of the countless lives that you have lived or will live, and the ever-going cycle or this abstract wheel of birth and death and again rebirth and death is known as Samsara. Dharma is the duty that you have to perform in your life. How you perform your duty (that is dharma)  in the current life decides how you get to live in your next life, and this belief (or the rule) that your current deeds decide your future outcome is known as Karma. And the ultimate goal of every soul is to liberate itself from this ever going cycle of Samsara and finally coalesce into the eternal bliss (that is the Brahman), and this liberation of soul from Samsara is known as Moksha. 

This seemingly never-ending cycle of Samsara would take numerous years for the soul to liberate itself from, even in theory, and it seemed inevitable for the beings to be forever subjected to this cycle. Then came a person who would contemplate if there could be another route to liberation from this almost never-ending Samsara – someone who was ready to devote his whole life in pursuit of this route, in pursuit of truth behind this route. That man would be a person named as Siddhartha Gautam – later to be widely known as the Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

So, next up, we will talk about the origin of Gautam Buddha and Buddhism, whose influence would transcend far beyond even the Indian Subcontinent. 

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