From the Rig Veda to the Upanishads and Brahma Sutras
by Vijaya Rajiva on 26 May 2012 64 Comments

In previous articles the present writer has spoken about the line of continuity from the Rig Veda (and Sama, Yajur and Atharva Veda) through to the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. 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 the 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 deities (Devas and Devatas) are invoked in their presence in the elements, as transition to the reflections of the Upanishads. The Chandogya, for instance, reflects a movement from the various elements that culminate in the udgitha, the OM (the pranava). The entire universe (multiverses) are sacralised, starting with the elements of earth and water, and the Upanishad sees no contradiction in gathering these up as correspondences and as well the presence of deities in the OM. It is only at this stage that one can identify the Chandogya’s final mention of Brahman as the all encompassing reality that expresses itself in the devas and devatas referred to above. A single example will suffice (though the Upanishad repeats this thought several times):

“Let a man meditate on the syllable OM, called the udgitha; for the udgitha is sung, beginning with OM. The essence of all beings is the earth, the essence of the earth is water, the essence of water the plants, the essence of plants man, the essence of man speech, the essence of speech the Rig Veda, the essence of the Rig Veda the Sama Veda, the essence of the Sama Veda the udgitha (OM).”

(From the translation by Max Mueller in Sacred Books of the East)

The culmination in what is referred to as the Mahavakya is a natural progression in the thinking of the Upanishadic seer: That Thou Art (Tat tvam asi). By the conclusion of the Upanishad there are references to Brahman.

Here, the identification of the individual self, now raised to the level of Self (Atman), with the infinite reality of Brahman, is first mentioned. It is left to the Brahma Sutras and the commentaries by Sankara and Ramanuja (and theistic commentators like Madhva, Vallabha) to further elaborate this theme. The idea too is that each individual human who progresses through the stages of meditation, yoga, devotion, knowledge etc. will enact the identification. The overall word for the process is ‘upasana’.

The Brihadaranyaka has a parallel movement to that of the Chandogya. The famous Mahavakya aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman) can be translated thus :

“Verily in the beginning this was Brahman, that Brahman knew its Self only, saying ‘I am Brahman’. From it all this sprang. Thus, whatever Deva was awakened (so as to know Brahman), he indeed became that (Brahman); and the same with Rishis and men. The Rishi Vamadeva saw and understood it, singing ‘I was Manu (moon), I was the sun.’ Therefore now also he who thus knows that he is Brahman, becomes all this. . . .”

(From the Max Muller translation)

This remarkable passage is succeeded by a spectacular celebration of the elemental world in its inner connection with the Self-Brahman:

“This earth is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this earth. Likewise this bright, immortal person this earth, and that bright immortal person incorporated in the body, both are madhu. He indeed is the same as that Self, that Immortal, that Brahman, that All.”

These sentiments are expressed repeatedly invoking in succession water, fire, air, sun, moon, lightning, thunder, ether, dharma, mankind, as being the honey of all beings, as that Brahman, that All.

(From the Max Muller translation)

The Brahman 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.

The writer does not see the difference between the two philosophers as significant. What is common to both is Satchidananda (Sat, Chit, Ananda) and here the Vedic gods are ever present, whether as Maya or as embodiment. The rituals offered to them by the Vedic Rishis are an ongoing reality in the Punya Bhumi, whether one construes this phrase as limited only to the Indian subcontinent or to Mother Earth.

The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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