Modern Hinduism derives its vitality, structure and meaning from the Vedic 'religion' and the claim that the two are separate is misinformed.
Shrikanth Krishnamachary is a data scientist in financial services based out of New York City, whose interests include economics, political philosophy, Hinduism, American history, and cricket. He tweets regularly at @shrikanth_krish
Very often in polite liberal circles, there is consternation when one states that Hinduism is the religion of the Vedas. The most typical reaction, which I have paraphrased, goes something like this: "No! That's a brahminical view appropriated by Hindu nationalists. Hinduism is an extremely diverse, motley collection of faiths that have originated in South Asia. To view the religion as essentially Vedic is to deny its heterogeneity and smacks of a certain brahminical elitism"
Modern Hinduism’s essential unity with the ancient Vedic religion is challenged widely by most Indologists. Their view is best articulated by this little extract from Michael Witzel and Stephanie Jamison in their 1992 work – “Vedic Hinduism” – an admittedly well-written tract.
“Vedic Hinduism" is a contradiction in terminus since Vedic religion is very different from what we generally call "Hindu religion", - at least as much as Old Hebrew religion is from medieval and modern Christian religion”
The above view is almost conventional wisdom in academia. Textbooks on Indian history often regard the Vedic period as distinct from the classical period of the Gupta age during which modern “Puranic” Hinduism allegedly took birth. However, this view, notwithstanding its merits, is problematic because it has practically little-to-no support among the large base of practicing Hindus, who invariably regard both their religion and themselves as part of the grand Vedic religious tradition. This essay is an attempt to explore the traditional standpoint, give voice to it, and understand why Hindus sense a strong theological, philosophical, as well as ritual continuity from the pre-Buddhist Vedic age, to the present. A continuity that is barely acknowledged in the academy, particularly in the West.
Differing conceptions of “Vedic religion”
Why are the views of traditionalists at such variance with those of the academics of religion in this regard? One of the most important reasons lies in the very different understanding of the term “Vedic” on both sides of the debate. Typically when academics refer to the “Vedic religion” they usually refer to the “Samhita” / “Brahmana” portion of the Vedas - the religion of mantras and sacrifices and elaborate rituals which, they believe, is non-existent in modern Hindu practice. But the traditionalist understanding of the term “Vedic religion” is very different. When a traditionalist uses the term, he uses it in a Catholic sense, referring not merely to the Samhitas, but also the Upanishads (the speculative/philosophical portion of the Vedas), and the entire corpus of secondary literature inspired by the Upanishads.
This secondary literature includes the Sutra literature of different philosophical schools, the Bhagavad Gita itself, the numerous commentaries on the Sutra literature (known in Indian parlance as “Bhashyas”) and the theological/literary traditions inspired by these commentators. The Vedic religion encompasses all of the above in the traditional Hindu view, and not merely the incantations and sacrificial rites described in the earliest Samhita / Brahmana layers. But there is a case to be made that even if we were to focus only on the Samhitas while assessing the old Vedic religion, there are still significant continuities between the religion described in Samhita literature and modern Hinduism.
Germs of Philosophical Inquiry in Samhita Literature
Several students of Hinduism in the academy view the Samhita / Brahmanas as primarily ritualistic and Upanishads as primarily speculative, and these two strands of Vedic literature are seen as being at loggerheads with each other. However, the Indian mind does not see the Upanishads as representing an intellectual revolt against the Karmakaand in the Samhitas / Brahmanas. In fact, a traditionalist would claim that a lot of the philosophical inquiry found in Upanishads can be traced back to the Samhitas.
Two examples being Nasadiya Sukta in the Rig Veda ( which contains the idea of an “Agnostic God”) and “Purusha Sukta” in the same Veda ( which has the germs of later Hindu ideas of division of labor). Let’s take the concluding extract of the Nasadiya Sukta (that dates back to the middle of 2nd millennium BCE as per most Indologists) to understand the philosophical legacy of Samhita literature –
“को अद्धा वेद क इह प्र वोचत्कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः |
अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥६॥
इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न |
यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥७॥“
Here’s AL Basham’s translation of the same –
“But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the Devas (gods) themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know“
This is a significant Sukta as it suggests a strong questioning / speculative spirit which would later manifest again in the Upanishads nearly half a millennium later, as well as in the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana. It contradicts the stereotypical view of Samhita literature as merely being a bunch of liturgical hymns, lacking the urge for understanding. It might be legitimately argued that without this questioning spirit in the Samhita literature, the course taken by later Indian philosophy and religion could well have been very different.
Theological continuities: Samhita literature vs Modern Hinduism
The other argument advanced by scholars who emphasize the differences between Vedic religion and later Hinduism concerns the deities. The view is put forth that Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, and Soma are no longer worshipped in India today. Modern Hinduism’s theology derives mainly from Itihaasas and Puranas and hence bears no connection to the Vedic religion.
However, this view downplays several facts inconvenient to its narrative:
a) Firstly the two supreme manifestations of the Godhead in “modern” Hinduism - Vishnu or Shiva - are very much Vedic Gods. And fairly major ones at that.
b) One of the most enduring images of Vishnu as Trivikrama finds its origins in the first Mandala of Rigveda – Sukta 154.
विष्णोर्नु कं वीर्याणि प्र वोचं यः पार्थिवानि विममे रजांसि ।
यो अस्कभायदुत्तरं सधस्थं विचक्रमाणस्त्रेधोरुगायः
Here’s Jan Gonda’s translation:
I will now proclaim the heroic deeds of Visnu, who has measured out the terrestrial regions, who established the upper abode having, wide-paced, strode out triply (...)
This is a fine example of theological continuity where a much-beloved form of one of the supreme deities in modern Hinduism is found in the Rig Veda – the earliest text in the Hindu tradition!
c) Many Vaishnavites to this day chant Purusha Suktam widely – which is a part of the Rig Veda Samhita (Mandala 10, Sukta 90). The primeval cosmic being and the original creative will in the universe identified in the Sukta are usually related to Vishnu by Vaishnavites, again indicative of the relevance of Samhita literature to modern religious belief.
d) The Shri-Rudram hymn (also known as Śatarudrīya) found in the Taittareya recension of the Yajur Veda Samhita, is still chanted by devout Shaivites, in just about every other Shiva temple.
While Indologists like to regard the Vedic Rudra as merely a proto-Shiva, traditional Shaivites see Rudra and Shiva as the same deity. The traditional view is further bolstered when we examine the Rudram more closely. Here are some adjectives used to describe Rudra in the hymn, which is very consistent with the later Puranic conception of Shiva.
Nilagriva: the blue-necked one
Kapardina: The one with matted hair
Girisamta: Dweller of the mountains
These attributes evoke the familiar image of Shiva known to every Hindu today, making a strong case for the essential identity/unity of the Vedic Rudra and Shiva – an identity that is not acknowledged readily by scholars.
The rituals in Brahmana / Aranyaka literature of the Vedas are not practiced widely in modern India. So there is definitely a discontinuity in the nature of the ritual practice that is hard to deny. Nevertheless, the ritualistic spirit of the Brahmanas never went out of Indian life. It lived on through the Purva Mimamsa darshana. Rituals (Homa and other Kriya Karmas) remain a part of modern Hindu practice though their nature has changed in comparison to the rituals described in the Brahmana literature. The key takeaway so far is that even if we were to use the highly restricted definition of the term “Veda” by considering only the Samhitas, there are still very strong commonalities between the religious ideas in the Samhitas and modern Hindu thought and practice.
Next, we turn our attention to the Jnanakaand of Vedic literature – the Upanishads, and its enormous impact on Hinduism as it exists today, as well as its continuing relevance.
The Vedic Jnanakaand and the modern Hindu scriptural canon
The Upanishads are a highly influential body of philosophical texts, viewed by every Hindu as a part of Vedic literature. It is also synonymous with the term “Vedanta” (the end of the Veda). Now Upanishads are an incredibly important body of work because they lay out the basic philosophical framework/verbiage leveraged by all Indian belief systems and have also influenced systems of non-belief such as Buddhism and Jainism. How closely are these Upanishads connected to the modern Hindu religion? In my view, the relationship is almost that of a parent and child.
The two foundational texts of modern Hinduism are:
- Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras
- Bhagavad Gita
Both these texts can be regarded as works that systematize the teachings in the Upanishads. In fact, Upanishads along with Brahma Sutras and Gita, are together regarded as “Prasthana trayi” - the three indispensable texts in Hinduism. Without the “Vedic” Upanishad literature, you would not have the scriptural canon of Prasthana Trayi which defines Hinduism to a great extent.
Next, we examine the criticality of Prasthana Trayi when it comes to defining not just Hindu philosophy but in determining the sectarian landscape of Hindu society.
Prasthana-Trayi and its influence on Hindu sect formation
It is often stated that there can be no new sect founded in India that does not begin with a fresh take on Brahma Sutras. That’s actually not an exaggerated comment. The Brahma Sutras along with the Gita systematize the teachings in the Upanishads. Unlike other religious traditions, these two texts are open to interpretation, and commentaries on them have triggered the formation of new sects.
There are five broad interpretations of the Brahma Sutras that are still extant today. Between them, it may be said that they claim the allegiance of a vast majority of orthodox Hindu sects. These five interpretations are by:
- Adi Sankara (Monism)
- Ramanuja (Qualified Monism)
- Madhwa (Strict Dualism)
- Nimbarka (Dualistic Non-dualism)
- Vallabha (Pure Non-dualism)
All these five traditions emerged from commentaries written by philosophers who lived between the 8th and the 15th centuries.
The reason this is worth mentioning is that all the five great Acharyas wrote their commentaries on the Brahma Sutras – a text whose earliest recensions as per many scholars could well belong to the pre-Panini “Vedic” epoch.
The clinching argument for the antiquity of the Brahma Sutras actually comes from the Bhagavad Gita itself, where Krishna refers to the Sutras in this verse:
ऋषिभिर्बहुधा गीतं छन्दोभिर्विविधैः पृथक्।
“It has been sung by seers in various ways, in various distinctive hymns, and also in the well-reasoned and conclusive words of the Brahma-sutras”
Given that the Gita is regarded as pre-Panini, and we find an explicit reference to Brahma Sutras within it, it follows that the Sutras are of considerable antiquity and most likely pre-Buddhist.
Itihaasa / Puranas and Vedas: Inextricable linkages
Next, let’s look at the often held view that modern Hinduism owes a lot to Puranas and the two Itihaasas and that Puranic Hinduism is distinct from Vedic religion. The key point to note here is that for most devout Hindus the distinction between Puranic and Vedic Hinduism is spurious.
Let us take the Bhagavad Gita. It is a part of a much larger Itihaasa text named Mahabharata. However, it can also be viewed as an Upanishadic text, inspired by the Upanishadic ideas to a great extent. The author of the Itihaasa in which Gita is embedded is Veda Vyasa. But the tradition also regards Vyasa as the arranger of the Vedas, the author of the Brahma Sutras, as well as the compiler of the important Maha Puranas.
While it may seem very implausible to attribute so many large and important texts to a single person, it is perhaps not as crazy as it sounds, if one examines the texts more closely. For instance, the Gita and Brahma Sutras reference each other and both texts discuss other philosophies like Sankhya in some detail suggesting that there was possibly a single dominant hand in editing the final recension of both the texts.
The takeaway here is that the linkages between various portions of the Itihaasa / Purana corpus and Vedic literature are real. While the Puranas as they exist today may date to the Gupta/post-Gupta epoch, it does not necessarily follow that they lack antiquity. It is quite possible that earlier recensions of Itihaasas / Puranas are indeed very old and go back to the Vedic epoch.
We can safely conclude that there are remarkably strong continuities, both theological and philosophical, that connect the Vedic epoch with our current epoch. These continuities are strong enough for us to embrace the essential unity of the Vedic religion and modern Hinduism. The Vedic literature provides the basis for modern Hindu sect formation, as well as carries the germs of later Hindu theology. The distinctions often drawn between Vedic and Puranic Hinduism are questionable, while the commonalities remain very strong. Regardless of one’s ideological or political affiliation, the unity of the two needs to be acknowledged more often by more people. Hinduism is very much the religion of the Vedas.