The Yajur, the sAma and the atharva Vedas

Sacred knowledge is trayI vidyA. It is three-fold, being the knowledge of the Rhg, the Yajur and the sAma Vedas. The two latter use hymns of the Rhg and the atharva Vedas and arrange them for purposes of ritual. The aim of the Yajur Veda is the correct performance of the sacrifice to which is attributed the whole control of the universe. Deities are of less importance than the mechanism of sacrifice. In the atharva Veda the position of the deities is still less important. A certain aversion to the recognition of the atharva Veda as a part of the sacred canon is to be noticed. Even the old Buddhist texts speak of learned brAhmaNas versed in the three Vedas. [ Sutta NipAta. 1019. ]

Though we meet in the atharva Veda many of the gods of the Rhg Veda, their characters are not so distinct. The sun becomes rohita, the ruddy one. A few gods are exalted to the position of PrajA-pati, DhAtrh (Establisher), VidhAtrh (arranger), ParameShThin (he that is in the highest). In a notable passage the Supreme in the form of VaruNa is described as the universal, omnipresent witness. [ dvau saMnisidhya yau mantrayete rAjA tad veda varuNaH trhtIyaH. ] There are references to kAla or time as the first cause of all existence, kAma or desire as the force behind the evolution of the universe, skambha or support who is conceived as the principle on which everything rests. Theories tracing the world to water or to air as the most subtle of the physical elements are to be met with.

The religion of the atharva Veda reflects the popular belief in numberless spirits and ghosts credited with functions connected in various ways with the processes of nature and the life of man. [ atharva Veda. XIX. 53. ] We see in it strong evidence of the vitality of the pre-Vedic animist religion and its fusion with Vedic beliefs. All objects and creatures are either spirits or are animated by spirits. While the gods of the Rhg Veda are mostly friendly ones we find in the atharva Veda dark and demoniacal powers which bring disease and misfortune to mankind. We have to win them by flattering petitions and magical rites. We come across spells and incantations for gaining worldly ends. The Vedic seer was loth to let the oldest elements disappear without trace. Traces of the influence of the atharva Veda are to be found in the upaniShads. There are spells for the healing of diseases, bhaiShajyAni, for life and healing AyuShyANi sUktAni. These were the beginnings of the medical science. [ In bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad VI. 4. we read of devices for securing the love of a woman or for the destruction of the lover of a wife. See also KauShItakI upaniShad. ]

The liberated soul is described as ‘free from desire, wise, immortal, self-born … not deficient in any respect … wise, unageing, young.’ [ atharva Veda X. 8. 44. ]

The brAhmaNas

The elements of the ritualistic cult found in the Vedas are developed in the brAhmaNas into an elaborate system of ceremonies. While in the Rhg Veda the sacrifices are a means for the propitiation of the gods, in the brAhmaNas they become ends in themselves. Even the gods are said to owe their position to sacrifices. There are many stories of the conflict between devas and asuras for the world power and of the way in which gods won through the power of the sacrifice. [ Katha SaMhitA XXII. 9; TaittirIya SaMhitA V. 3. 3; tANDya brAhmaNa XVIII. 1. 2. ]

It is not the mechanical performance of a sacrificial rite that brings about the desired result, but the knowledge of its real meaning. Many of the brAhmaNa texts are devoted to the exposition of the mystic significance of the various elements of the ritual. By means of the sacrifices we ‘set in motion’ the cosmic forces dealt with and get from them the desired results. The priests who knew the details of the aim, meaning and performance of the sacrifice came into great prominence. Gods became negligible intermediaries. If we perform a rite with knowledge, the expected benefit will result. Soon the actual performance of the rite becomes unnecessary. Ritualistic religion becomes subordinate to knowledge. [ See Franklin Edgerton: 'The upaniShads : What do they seek and Why ?' Journal of the American Oriental Society, June, 1929. ]

The brAhmaNas are convinced that life on earth is, on the whole, a good thing. The ideal for man is to live the full term of his life on earth. As he must die, the sacrifice helps him to get to the world of heaven.

While the Vedic poets hoped for a life in heaven after death, there was uneasiness about the interference of death in a future life. The fear of re-death, punar-mrhtyu becomes prominent in the brAhmaNas. Along with the fear of re-death arose the belief of the imperishability of the self or the Atman, the essential part of man’s being. Death is not the end but only causes new existences which may not be better than the present one. Under the influence of popular animism which sees souls similar to the human in all pares of nature, future life was brought down to earth. According to the Satapatha brAhmaNa, a man has three births, the first which he gets from his parents, the second through sacrificial ceremonies and the third which he obtains after death and cremation. [ trIr ha vai puruSho jAyate, etan nu eva mAtus ca adhi pitus ca agre jAyate; atha yaM yajnaH upanamati sa yad yajate, tad dvitIyaM jAyate; atha yatra mriyate yatrainam agnAv abhyAdadhAti sa yat tatas sambhavati, tat trHtIyaM jAyate. XI. 2. 1. 1. See Indian Philosophy by Radhakrishnan Vol. I, Ch. III. ]

The AraNyakas

The AraNyakas do not give us rules for the performance of sacrifices and explanations of ceremonies, but provide us with the mystic teaching of the sacrificial religion. As a matter of fact, some of the oldest upaniShads are included in the AraNyaka texts, [ aitareya upaniShad is included in the Aitareya AraNyaka which is tacked on to aitareya brAhmaNa: KauShItakI upaniShad and taittirIya upaniShad belong to the brAhmaNas of the same names. bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad is found at the end of the Satapatha brAhmaNa. chAndogya upaniShad of which the first section is an AraNyaka belongs to a brAhmaNa of the sAma Veda. Kena upaniShad (TalavakAra upaniShad) belongs to the JaiminIya upaniShad brAhmaNa. Isa upaniShad belongs to the White Yajur Veda, KaTha upaniShad and SvetAsvatara upaniShad to the Black Yajur Veda, muNDaka upaniShad and Prasna belong to the Atharva Veda. MaitrI, though attributed to a school of Black Yajur Veda, is perhaps post-Buddhistic, judged by its language, style and contents. ] which are meant for the study of those who are engaged in the vow of forest life, vAnaprasthas. [ AruNeya upaniShad. 2. ] As those who retire to the forests are not like the householders bound to the ritual, the AraNyakas deal with the meaning and interpretation of the sacrificial ceremonies. It is possible that certain sacred rites were performed in the seclusion of the forests where teachers and pupils meditated on the significance of these rites. The distinction of brAhmaNa and AraNyaka is not an absolute one.

The upaniShads

The AraNyakas [ aitareya AraNyaka (III. 1. 1.) begins with the title 'The upaniShad of the saMhitA', athAtas saMhitAyA upaniShat: see also sAMkhyAyana AraNyaka VII. 2. ] shade off imperceptibly into the upaniShads even as the brAhmaNas shade off into the AraNyakas. While the student (brahmacArin) reads the hymns, the house-holder (gRhastha) attends to the brAhmaNas which speak of the daily duties and sacrificial ceremonies, the hermit, the man of the forest (vAnaprastha), discusses the AraNyakas, the monk who has renounced worldly attachment (samnyAsin), studies the upaniShads, which specialise in philosophical speculations.

The great teachers of the past did not claim any credit for themselves, but maintained that they only transmitted the wisdom of the ancients. [ Cp. Confucius: 'I am not born endowed with knowledge. I am a man who loves the ancients and has made every effort to acquire their learning.' Lun yu VII. 19. ] The philosophical tendencies implicit in the Vedic hymns are developed in the upaniShads.

Hymns to gods and goddesses are replaced by a search for the reality underlying the flux of things. ‘What is that which, being known, everything else becomes known ?’ [ muNDaka upaniShad I.1.3; see also taittirIya upaniShad II. 8. ] Kena upaniShad gives the story of the discomfiture of the gods who found out the truth that it is the power of brahman which sustains the gods of fire, air, etc. [ See also bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad III. 9. 1-10. ] While the poets of the Veda speak to us of the many into which the radiance of the Supreme has split, the philosophers of the upaniShads speak to us of the One Reality behind and beyond the flux of the world. The Vedic deities are the messengers of the One Light which has burst forth into the universal creation. They serve to mediate between pure thought and the intelligence of the dwellers in the world of sense.

When we pass from the Vedic hymns to the upaniShads we find that the interest shifts from the objective to the subjective, from the brooding on the wonder of the outside world to the meditation on the significance of the self. The human self contains the clue to the interpretation of nature. The Real at the heart of the universe is reflected in the infinite depths of the soul. The upaniShads give in some detail the path of the inner ascent, the inward journey by which the individual souls get at the Ultimate Reality. Truth is within us. The different Vedic gods are envisaged subjectively. ‘Making the Man (puruSha) their mortal house the gods indwelt him.’ [ Atharva Veda XI. 8. 18. ] ‘All these gods are in me.’ [ JaiminIya upaniShad brAhmaNa I. 14. 2. ] ‘He is, indeed, initiated, whose gods within him are initiated, mind by Mind, voice by Voice.’ [ KauShItaki brAhmaNa VII. 4. ] The operation of the gods becomes an epiphany: ‘This Brahma, verily, shines when one sees with the eye and likewise dies when one does not see.’ [ kauShItakI upaniShad II. 12 and 13. ] The deities seem to be not different from Plato’s Ideas or Eternal Reasons.

In the upaniShads we find a criticism of the empty and barren ritualistic religion. [ muNDaka upaniShad I. 2. 1, 7-11; bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad III. 9. 6, 21; chAndogya upaniShad I. 10-12, IV. 1-3. ] Sacrifices were relegated to an inferior position. They do not lead to final liberation; they take one to the world of the Fathers from which one has to return to earth again in due course. [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad I. 5. 16, VI. 2. 16; chAndogya upaniShad V. 10. 3; Prasna I. 9; muNDaka upaniShad I. 2. 10. ] When all things are God’s there is no point in offering to him anything, except one’s will, one’s self. The sacrifices are interpreted ethically. The three periods of life supersede the three soma offerings. [ chAndogya upaniShad III. 16. ] Sacrifices become self-denying acts like puraSha-medha and sarva-medha which enjoin abandonment of all possessions and renunciation of the world. For example, the bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad opens with an account of the horse sacrifice (asva-medha) and interprets it as a meditative act in which the individual offers up the whole universe in place of the horse, and by the renunciation of the world attains spiritual autonomy in place of earthly sovereignty. [ devI bhAgavata says that the Supreme took the form of the Buddha in order to put a stop to wrong sacrifices and prevent injury to animals.
duShTa-yajna-vighAtAya pasu-hiMsA nivrhttaye
bauddha-rUpam dadhau yo'sau tasmai devAya te namaH.
Animal sacrifices are found in the Vedas (inserted) by the twice-born who are given to pleasures and relishing tastes. Non-injury is, verily, the highest truth.
dvijair bhoga-ratair vede darsitaM hiMsanaM pasoH
jihvA-svAda-paraiH kAmam ahiMsaiva parA matA. ] In every homa the expression svAha is used which implies the renunciation of the ego, svatva-hanana. [ yAska explains it thus: su AhA iti vA, svA vAg Aheti vA, svam prAheti vA, svAhutaM havir juhoti iti vA. Nirukta VIII. 21. ]

There is great stress on the distinction between the ignorant, narrow, selfish way which leads to transitory satisfactions and the way which leads to eternal life. yajna is Karma, work. [ Cp. bhagavad-gItA III. 9. 10.
Manu says: 'Learning is brahma-yajna, service of elders is pitrh-yajna, honouring great and learned people is deva-yajna, performing religious acts and charity is bhUta-yajna and entertaining guests is nara-yajna.'
adhyApanam brahma-yajnaH pitrh-yajnas tu tarpaNam
homo daivo balir bhauto nrh-yajno atithi-pUjanam. ] It is work done for the improvement of the soul and the good of the world, Atmonnataye jagaddhitAya. sAMkhyAyana brAhmaNa of the Rhg Veda says that the self is the sacrifice and the human soul is the sacrificer, puruSho vai yajnaH, AtmA yajamAnaH. The observance of the Vedic ritual prepares the mind for final release, if it is in the right spirit. [ LaugAkShi BhAskara points out at the end of the artha-saMgraha: so'yaM dharmaH yad uddisya vihitaH tad-uddesena kriyamANaH tad-hetuH, IsvarArpaNa-buddhyA kriyamANas tu niHsreyasa-hetuH. ]

Prayer and sacrifice are means to philosophy and spiritual life. While true sacrifice is the abandonment of one’s ego, prayer is the exploration of reality by entering the beyond that is within, by ascension of consciousness. It is not theoretical learning. [ chAndogya upaniShad VII. 1. 2. 3. ] We must see the eternal, the celestial, the still. If it is unknowable and incomprehensible, it is yet realisable by self-discipline and integral insight. We can seize the truth not by logical thinking, but by the energy of our whole inner being. Prayer starts with faith, with complete trust in the Being to whom appeal is made, with the feeling of a profound need, and a simple faith that God can grant us benefits and is well disposed towards us. When we attain the blinding experience of the spiritual light, we feel compelled to proclaim a new law for the world.

The upaniShad seers are not bound by the rules of caste, but extend the law of spiritual universalism to the utmost bounds of human existence. The story of SatyakAma JAbAla, who, though unable to give his father’s name, was yet initiated into spiritual life, shows that the upaniShad writers appeal from the rigid ordinances of custom to those divine and spiritual laws which are not of today or of yesterday, but live for ever and of their origin knoweth no man. The words tat tvam asi are so familiar that they slide off our minds without full comprehension.

The goal is not a heavenly state of bliss or rebirth in a better world, but freedom from the objective, cosmic law of karma and identity with the Supreme Consciousness and Freedom. The Vedic paradise, svarga, becomes a stage in the individual’s growth. [ The svarga offered as a reward for ceremonial conformity is only a stage in the onward growth of the human soul, sattva-guNodaya. BhAgavata XI. 19. 42.
NirAlambopaniShad defines svarga as sat-saMsarga. Heaven and Hell are both in the cosmic process: atraiva narakas svargaH. BhAgavata III. 30. 29. ]

The upaniShads generally mention the Vedas with respect and their study is enjoined as an important duty. [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad IV. 4. 22; I. 9. ] Certain verses from the Vedas such as the gAyatrI form the subject of meditations [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad VI. 3. 6. ] and sometimes verses from the Vedas are quoted in support of the teaching of the upaniShads. [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad I. 3. 10. ] While the upaniShads use the Vedas, their teaching is dependent on the personal experience and testimony of teachers like yAjnavalkya, sANDilya. The authority of the Vedas is, to no small extent, due to the inclusion of the upaniShads in them.

It is often stated that Vedic knowledge by itself will not do. In the chAndogya upaniShad, [ VI. 1 ff. ] Svetaketu admits that he has studied all the Vedas but is lacking in the knowledge ‘whereby what has not been heard of becomes heard of, what has not been thought of becomes thought of, what has not been understood becomes understood.’ nArada tells sanatkumAra that he has not the knowledge of the Self though he has covered the entire range of knowledge, from the Vedas to snake-charming. [ VII. 1 ff. ]