Veda and Vedanta : Are They Opposed to Each Other?
The rituals mentioned in the karmakanda of the Vedas are sought to be negated in the jnanakanda which is also part of the same scripture. While the karmakanda a enjoins upon you the worship of various deities and lays down rules for the same, the jnanakanda constituted by the Upanisads ridicules the worshipper of deities as a dim-witted person no better than a beast.
This seems strange, this latter part of the Vedas contradicting the former part. The first part deals throughout with karma, while the second or concluding part is all about jnana. Owing to this difference, people have gone so far as to divide our scripture into two sections: the Vedas (that is the first part) to mean the karmakanda and the Upanisads (Vedanta) to mean the jnanakanda.
Vedanta it is that the Lord teaches us in the Gita and in it he lashes out against the karmakanda. It is generally believed that the Buddha and Mahavira were the first to attack the Vedas. It is not so. Sri Krsna Paramatman himself spoke against them long before these two religious leaders. At one place in the Gita he says to Arjuna': "The Vedas are associated with the three qualities of Sattva, rajas and tamas . You must transcend these qualities. Full of desire, they (the practitioners of Vedic rituals) long for paradise and keep thinking of pleasures and material prosperity. They are born again and again and their minds are never fixed in samadhi, these men clinging to Vedic rituals." In another passage Krsna declares2: "Not by the Vedas am I to be realised, nor by sacrifices nor by much study"
Does not such talk contradict all that I have spoken so far about the Vedas, that they are the source of all our dharma ?
With some thinking we will realise that there is in fact no contradiction. Would it be possible for us, in our present condition, to go beyond the three gunas even to the slightest extent and realise the true state of the Self spoken of in the Upanisads? The purpose of the Vedic rituals is to take us, by degrees, to this state. So long as we believe that the world is real we worship the deities so as to be vouchsafed happiness. And this world, which we think is real, is also benefited by such worship. Thinking the deities to be real, we help them and in return we are helped by them. Living happily on this earth we long to go to the world of the celestials and enjoy the pleasures of paradise. So far so good. But if we stopped at this stage would it not mean losing sight of our supreme objective? Is not this objective, this goal, our becoming one with the Paramatman? Would it not be foolish to ignore this great ideal of ours and still cling to mundane happiness?
In our present state of immaturity it is not possible to think of the world being unreal. Recognising this, the Vedas provide us the rituals to be performed for happiness in this world. Because of our inadequacies we are unable to devote ourselves to a formless Paramatman from whom we are not different. So the Vedas have devised a system in which a number of deities are worshipped. But, in course of time, as we perform the rituals and worship the deities, we must make efforts to advance to the state of wisdom and enlightenment in which the world will be seen to be unreal and the rites will become unnecessary. Instead of worshipping many deities, we must reach the state in which we will recognise that we have no existence other than that of our being dissolved in the Paramatman. We must perform Vedic sacraments with the knowledge that they prepare us to go to this high state by making our mind pure and one-pointed.
If we perform rituals with the sole idea of worldly happiness and carry on trade with the celestials by conducting sacrifices (offering them oblations and receiving benefits from them in return), we will never come face to face with the Truth. Even if we go to the world of the celestials, we will not be blessed with Self-realisation. Our residence in paradise is commensurate with the merit we earn here and is not permanent. Sooner or later we will have to return to this world and be in the womb of a mother. The ritual worship and other sacraments of the Vedas are to some extent the result of making an adjustment to our present immature state of mind. But their real purpose is to take us forward gradually from this very immature state and illumine us within. It would be wrong to refuse to go beyond the stage of ritual worship.
If, to begin with, it is not right to refuse all at once to perform Vedic rites, it would be equally not right, subsequently, to refuse to give them up. Nowadays, people are averse to ritual to start with itself. "What?" they exclaim. "Who wants to perform sacrifices? Why should we chant the Vedas? Let us go. directly to the Upanisads." Some of them can speak eloquently about the Upanishads from a mere intellectual understanding of them. But none has the inward experience of the truths propounded in them and we do not see them emerging as men of detachment with a true awareness of the Self. The reason for this is that they have not prepared themselves for this higher state of perception through the performance of rituals. If this is wrong in one sense, refusal to take the path of jnana from that of karma is equally not justifiable.
If one has to qualify for the BA degree one has to begin at the beginning - one has to progress from the first standard all the way to the degree course. One cannot naturally join the BA class without qualifying for it. At the same time, is it not absurd to remain all the time as a failure in the first standard itself?
In the old days there were many people belonging to the latter category (that is people who refused to take the path of knowledge and wished to remain wedded to the path of karma). Now people belonging to the former category predominate (that is those who want to take the path of jnana, without being prepared for it through karma). During the time of Sri Krsna also the majority clung to rituals. His criticism is directed against them, against those who perform Vedic sacraments without understanding their purpose and who fail to go beyond them. Unfortunately, this is mistaken for criticism of the Vedas themselves. The Lord could never have attacked the Vedas per Se. After all, it was to save them that he descended to earth again and again.
In keeping with his times, Krsna Paramatman spoke against people who confined themselves to the narrow path of karma. If he were to descend to earth again to teach us, he would turn against those who plunge into a study of the Upanisads, spurning Vedic rites. It seems to me that he would be more severe in his criticism of these people than he was against those who were obsessed with karma.
Graduating to the Upanisads without being prepared for them through the performance of Vedic rites is a greater offence than failure to go along the path of jnana from that of karma. After all, to repeat what I said before, one has to go through the primary and secondary stages of education before qualifying for admission to college. The man who insists on being admitted to the BA class without qualifying for it is not amenable to any suggestion. The one who wants to remain in the first standard learns at least something; the other type is incapable of learning anything.
The Vedas and Vedanta are not at variance with each other. The karmakanda prepares us for Vedanta or the jnanakanda. The former has to do with this world and with many deities and its adherents are subject to the three gunas. But it is the first step to go beyond the three gunas and to sever oneself from worldly existence If we perform the rites laid down in the karmakanda, keeping in mind their true purpose, we shall naturally be qualifying for the jnanakanda
Some questions arise here. The sound of the Vedas and the sacrifices benefit not only the person who chants the Vedas and performs the sacrifices but all creatures. If such a man (that is like the one who learns the Vedas and conducts sacrifices) renounces the world thinking it to be unreal and becomes a jnanin, what will happen to the world, to its welfare? Even if you think that the world is unreal, it is real in the sense that it is the cause of so much suffering. The jnanin does not perform any rites like sacrifices so as to rid the world of its troubles. Who will then work for the welfare of the world?
The answer: the jnanin is in an exalted state of awareness and while being in it he does not have to perform any sacrifices or other rites to ensure the good of the world. His life itself is a sacrifice, a yajna, and through him the world will receive the Lord's blessings even if he looks upon it as unreal or as a "sport" of the Supreme Being. Why do people flock to a jnanin? Why do they fall at his feet even if he keeps himself aloof from them? It is because they receive his grace. Whether or not he wants to give any blessings, the Lord's grace flows into this world through him. In his very presence people feel tranquil and, sometimes, even their worldly desires are satisfied. A jnanin who realises within that there is no deity apart from himself can give his blessings in greater measure than the deities themselves. So it is wrong to think that, since he does not perform sacrifices, he does not do anything for the good of the world.
Followers of other faiths are mistaken in their view of Hinduism. They separate the Vedantic system from the Vedic system of sacraments and observe:
"To the Hindus what matters is individual salvation. They ignore the wellbeing of the world. Meditation, yoga, samadhi are a means of individual liberation. Hindus are unlike the followers of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed because they do not preach love and brotherhood nor do they promote the growth of social consciousness among themselves."
One who has a proper understanding of our religion will recognise that it is wrong to divide Hinduism into two compartments, the Vedic religion and the Vedantic. As a sannyasin in the final stage of his life a man becomes a Vedantin and jnanin and merits liberation for himself. But we must remember that he leaves behind him another stage of life in which he has worked for the welfare of the world by chanting the Vedas and by performing rituals. Indeed it was because of this work that he became mentally pure and qualified for the Vedantic path and for his own release from worldly existence.
Also to be noted is that even after achieving perfection in Vedanta and becoming a jnanin he keeps blessing the world without performing any rites and, indeed, by virtue of his mere presence. I am not examining here the big question of which of the two goals of a religion is greater, individual liberation or collective welfare. That is a separate subject. Let us leave aside for the present the question of social welfare. The question to be answered now is this: If an individual owing allegiance to a religion does not become a jnanin with inward experience of the Truth of the Supreme Being, what does it matter whether or not that religion exists ?
All rituals, all worship, are meant to make a man aware of the Reality. Varnasrama with its one hundred thousand differences and with its countless stipulations as to who can do what is a preliminary arrangement to arrive at the stage in which there is a oneing of all, with all the differences banished. If we fail to go beyond the stage of karma, observing all the differences of varnasrama, we shall be committing a wrong. Krsna Paramatman directs his criticism against those who claim that the karmakanda of the Vedas alone matters, that the jnanakanda does not serve any purpose. In doing so he seems to attack the Vedas themselves. In reality he faults those who are, in his words, "Veda-vadaratah", those who are deceived by flowery accounts of the Vedas without realising their true meaning and those who do not exert themselves to rise to the level of experiential jnana.
To start with, we must perform the rites prescribed by the Vedas. But in this there must be the realisation that they are but steps leading us to the higher state in which we will ultimately find bliss in our Self, a state in which there will be neither rites nor duties to perform. Similarly, to start with, the deities must be worshipped but again with the conviction that such worship serves the ultimate purpose of arriving at the point where we will recognise that the worshipper and the worshipped are one. Thus, to begin with, all differences in functions must be recognised and life lived according to them. Different divisions of people have different duties, and the customs and rites assigned to each are such as to help them in the proper discharge of those duties. But in the very process of maintaining such differences there must be the conviction within that ultimately there are no differences, that all are one.
If the Vedas are to be learned and chanted and if the Vedic rituals are to be practised - and the Vedas must be learned and chanted even as the Vedic rituals must be practised - it is because in this way we shall be led to that supreme experience of the Reality in which there will be no need for these very Vedas. First the flowers and from them the fruit. Though the flower looks beautiful, the fruit emerges only when it wilts or falls to earth A tree does not fruit before it flowers. In the same way, to plunge into Vedanta without first going through a life of Vedic discipline is neither wise nor in keeping with reality. It is equally wrong to remain confined to the karmakanda and refuse to make an effort to acquire Vedantic knowledge: it is like wishing that we must have only flowers and no fruits. There must be a sense of balance, a sense of proportion, in everything we do.
There is a passage in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad similar to that in the Gita: "He who becomes aware of the nature of the Atman - for him the Vedas will no longer be Vedas, the gods will cease to be gods, Brahmins will no longer be Brahmins
As we have already seen, "Sruti" by which we mean the Vedas contains not only the Samhitas but also the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the Upanisads. The Gita is not a Sruti and it is customary to regard it as belonging to the category of Smrti. I shall speak to you later about Smrti when I deal with Dharmasastra, one of the fourteen branches of learning (caturdasa-vidya). The Smrti that is the Gita observes: "Vedic rites and worship are futile if they do not take you to the path of jnana." The Puranas too are among the three categories of authoritative texts of our religion - the other two being Sruti and Smrti - and they have the same view about a life confined to rituals. The sages in the Daruka forest were proud about their sacrificial worship, but Pararnesvara curbed their pride - how he did so is narrated in the Saiva Puranas. The Bhagavata tells us how the yajnapatnis, the simple and unpretentious wives of the sages, were able to see Mahavisnu as he appeared in the form of the Yajnapurusa. But their husbands who were wedded to ritual could not see the Lord and very much regretted it.
Sruti is higher as an authority than Smrti or the Puranas. I referred to a passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad to show that we have the testimony of the Sruti itself to prove that rituals are not enough for Atmic advancement. However, it might be argued that Sruti itself is divided into the karmakanda and the jnanakanda and that, after all, it is natural that in the jnanakanda the quest for jnana should be spoken of highly. So there is nothing remarkable about its declaring that rituals cannot be the final goal Of the seekers
However, in the karmakanda itself there is criticism of the view that rituals are all and that they are the ultimate goal. Sri Krsna declares in the Gita4 that it is laudable to perform the many sacrifices mentioned in the Vedas realising their true purpose ("Evam bahuvidha yajna vitata Brahmano mukhe"). However, all these sacraments have their culmination in jnana ("Sarvam karm' akhilam Partha jnane parisamapyate").
The same idea is expressed forcefully through an illustration in the Vedic karmakanda itself: "He who performs only rituals, without wakening to Isvara feeds the fire to raise smoke and nothing else" (Taittiriya Kathakam, first prasna, last anuvaka, fourth vakya). If you feed the fire with firewood you must keep the pot over it to cook rice. One who does not exert oneself to be "cooked" in jnana is like the man who lights the kitchen fire without keeping the cooking pot on it. This is what the Vedas say. What purpose is served by building a big
sacrificial fire if you do not offer the oblation in it? The result will be only smoke and more smoke. A sacrifice must be performed with the consciousness that you are offering the fruit of your karma itself as an oblation. Otherwise there will be nothing but smoke.
"The Self must be offered as an oblation in the fire of the Brahman. All sensual pleasures must be offered in the fire of self-control. The five vital breaths must be given over in sacrifice in one another"5, says the Gita. Vedic sacrifices involving materials and works have this goal. A man may perform any number of sacrifices but he would be a fool to perform them without realising this truth. The Vedas too say that such a man is unintelligent. What do you expect his buddhi (intuitive intelligence) to become? It would also be like the smoke of the sacrificial fire that darkens everything in its course and ends up in nothing.
When Vedic rites are performed in a spirit of dedication to Isvara they will loosen your ties little by little, instead of keeping you bound to this world. If you perform rites to please the Lord, without expecting any reward, your mind will be cleansed and you will transcend the three gunas. This is the meaning and purpose of "yajna". Is not the word understood in English as "sacrifice"? "Yaga" also means sacrifice, "tyaga". When an offering is placed in the fire we say "na mama" ("not mine"): it is this attitude of self-denial that is the life and soul of a sacrificial rite. Is it possible to retrieve what has been offered in the fire? Even if it were, it would soon disintegrate. In this way you must reduce your ego-sense to ashes, also your possessiveness ("ahamkara-mamakara"). One who performs a sacrifice without being conscious of such high ideals but with the purpose of petty gains like ascending to paradise - is he not a fool?
There is no contradiction between the karmakanda and the jnanakanda. In the karmakanda itself jnana is given an elevated place and the limitations of karma mentioned. There are hymns incorporating high philosophical truths in the Samhita part itself of the Vedas like, for instance, the "Nasadiyasukta", the "Purusasukta" and the "Tryambaka mantra". Also to be noted is the fact that the Upanisads themselves mention rites (karma) like the "Naciketagni". How would you explain this if the karmakanda and the jnanakanda were opposed to each other? The underlying idea is that we must graduate from the one to the other [from karma to jnana]
As we have already seen, the Gita (which is a Smrti) says that sacraments performed in a spirit of dedication to Isvara are a means of obtaining jnana. The same idea is found expressed in a Sruti text, the Isavasya Upanisad. The first of the ten major Upanisads, it commences with the statement6: "Live a hundred years performing Vedic rites. But do so in a spirit of dedication to Isvara. Then it will not keep you bound". So it would be wrong to believe that the Upanisads teach inaction.
Karma, however, is not the goal of the Vedas. You must go beyond the stage of performing Vedic rituals even if they be for such a noble purpose as that of creating welfare in the world, cleansing your consciousness and propitiating the deities. You must rise higher to the plane where you will realise that nothing other than the Paramatman exists, that the phenomenal world is unreal, that there are no entities called deities (devatas) with an independent existence of their own and that there is no "I". When you come to this state there will be no need for the Vedas too for you: this is stated in the Vedas themselves.
The Vedas are the laws laid down by Paramesvara. All people, all his subjects, must obey them. But there is no need for the man who is always steeped inwardly as well as outwardly in the Reality that is the Paramatman to refer to this law with respect to all his actions. That is why it is said that for such men the Vedas cease to be Vedas. (We too do not respect the Vedas as the law. For us also the Vedas are not Vedas. But we do not have even a whiff of jnana!)
If you do not realise that the karmakanda is a means to take you to the "paravidya"7 that is constituted by the Upanisads, then the Vedas (that is their karmakanda) is an apara-vidya8 like any other subject such as history or geography that is learned at school. It is for this reason that the Mundaka Upanisad includes the Vedas in the category of apara-vidya9. This Upanisad describes a person who performs Vedic rites for ephemeral enjoyments, mundane benefits, as a mere beast (pasu).
To the jnanin who is united with the Paramatman the deities are not entities outside of himself for they too have emanated from the same Paramatman. Indeed, these deities inhere in him since he is dissolved in the Paramatman to become the Paramatman. If he does not have such inward experience of being dissolved in the Supreme Godhead, when he worships a deity as an entity separate from him, he must do so regarding it as integral to the Atman. Even if it be necessary to carry out all our outward functions according to a system based on differences, we must always be conscious of the truth that in the end we will be united with that fundamental Reality in which all these differences will cease to exist. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad declares:
"He who worships the deities as entities entirely separate from him does not know the truth. For the gods he is like a pasu (beast)"(1.4.10)10.
The word "pasu" is very meaningful here. In a superficial sense it means one who does not possess the sixth sense of a human and lives on an animal level. Let me tell you the inner meaning. Why do we keep a cow? Because it gives us milk. That is why we feed it grass, oil cake, cottonseed and so on. We offer oblations in the fire to please the gods. In return they grant us blessings in the form of rain, crops, etc. These celestials, as we have seen, are superior to us but they do not know the bliss that is boundless. Indeed they are unaware of even a fraction of the bliss that a jnanin who is but a mortal experiences.
The Taittiriya Upanisad (2.8.1)" and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (4.3.33)12 deal with the ananda, bliss, experienced by various orders like humans, the fathers, the celestials. We have here something of an arithmetical table on bliss. The bliss experienced by each order is a hundred times greater than that experienced by the preceding one - it is all in the ascending order. Among the celestials the degrees of bliss known to Indra, Brhaspati and Prajapati are given separately. The highest bliss is experienced by the jnanin, the bliss of knowing the Brahman (Brahmananda). Thus the devas (celestials) are deficient in the matter of bliss. Also, they do not make any effort to attain to the highest state of blessedness. They look forward to the gains to be made from us, from the sacrifices we perform, from our worship. For this reason they do not Like us humans to become jnanins. This is clearly stated in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad: "The celestials do not like humans who realise the Self" (1.4.10)'. Why? When a man realises himself he will not perform any sacrifices and other rites to please the deities.
Take the case of our domestic servant. We pay him a small wage and we know that we will have to pay more if we appoint a new man in his place. He wants to go to school, pass some examination or other so that, eventually, he will be able to take up some better job and do well in life. If he really appeared for an examination, would we honestly like him to pass? No. We would like him to fail. If he passes he will find a better job for himself and have a better "status" than now. We may not find it easy to hire a new servant on the same small wages. We are similarly situated in our relationship to the celestials. They will not like us to become jnanins because we will then cease to worship them.
If a jnanin is not dear to the devas, it follows that one who is not a jnanins is dear to them. In other words he who is dear to the gods is an ajnanins. That is why in grammar an idiot ("murkha") has the name of "devanampriya" ("dear to the gods or celestials"). This term has its source in the Upanisads. In his commentary on the Brahmasutra, Sankara Bhagavatpada says to one who maintains that the Paramatman and the jivatman (individual Self) are different: "Idam tavad devanampriyah prastavyah' (This is what you idiot should be asked). You had probably thought that "devanampriya" to be a big title of honour.
(In the Asokan edicts the emperor is referred to as "devanampriya". Even before the time of Asoka, Panini had said that the term meant an idiot. For this reason it would be wrong to believe that the followers of the Vedic religion in later times took the word to mean an idiot with the deliberate intent of denigrating the Buddhist Asoka. Our Acharya, as I have said earlier, refers in his commentary on the Brahmasutra, to one who does not know the true purpose of the Vedas as a "devanampriya", meaning by the term an "idiot". But now in the Asokan edicts the same appellation is given to one opposed to the Vedas, one who belongs to the non-Vedic Buddhist religion.
(One who follows the Vedic tradition and becomes a jnanin by learning the truths propounded in the Upanisads no longer performs sacrifices to please the gods. No more will he be dear to them now. Since sacrifices are prohibited in Buddhism obviously the celestials do not like followers of that religion. Then why is Asoka, who was a great supporter of Buddhism, called "devanampriya"? As a Buddhist he would not have performed Vedic rituals, but at the same time he would not have come under the influence of Vedanta to become a jnanin. Asoka must have earned the appellation of "devanampriya" in the sense that anyone who did not follow the teachings of Vedanta does not become a jnanin.
(It is also likely that someone not acquainted with such matters, a sculptor or a government official, must have inscribed the title "devanampriya" thinking it to be highly complimentary to the emperor.)
When a man, dear to the celestials, ceases to perform sacrifices on turning to the path of jnana, they place obstacles before him. We read in the Puranas stories of the apsarases who disturb the sages in their meditation and austerities.
Until a man becomes a jnanin he keeps performing the rites intended for the celestials. In return they bring him various benefits. They have to be given their share of the oblations. If a man helps us we have to help him in return. Is that not so? We have to help the celestials who bring us rain and other benefits. That is why we perform sacrifices. Some Brahmin or other gives the "havirbhaga" (a share in the oblations) to the devas, doing so as a representative of us all. It is like one man paying taxes on behalf of all.
To the celestials a person who performs Vedic rituals is like a milch cow. When the cow goes dry what use is it to a man (its owner)? The celestials will be pleased with a person so long as he remains a milch cow (performing sacrifices and other rites). If he ceases to be a much cow they will dislike him, cause him suffering. That means man is like a cow to the devas in more than one sense: in the sense that he is ignorant (not a jnanin);' and in the sense that they do not protect him when he stops performing rites (do we take care of a cow that has gone dry?).
It is part of wisdom and enlightenment to realise that the gods are not separate from us. Vedanta points a way to realise this truth, and shows us how we may free ourselves from works and even worship of the gods and reach the stage where there is no difference between us and all the rest. Let me tell you about the great esteem in which Vedanta has been held in this country.
Though the Vedas are infinite, the seers have brought us only a few of them. But since, in this age of Kali, even these are difficult to master, they divided them into 1,180 Sakhas or recensions, each with a Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanisad. Later, out of these many passed into oblivion. Now the remaining too are threatened with extinction because people belonging to this generation have brought Vedic studies to such a sad state and earned merit thereby!
We have some Upanisads belonging to recensions of which neither the Sarnhita nor the Brahmanas are studied. Even their texts are not available. The Sarnhita of the Sankhayana Sakha of the Rgveda is no longer chanted now; the fact is we have lost it. But the Kausitaki Upanisad which is a part of this recension is still extant. The Baskala Mantropanisad, also from the Rgveda, is still available: I am told a palm-leaf manuscript of the same is in the Adyar Library, Madras. But neither the Sarnhita nor the Brahmana of the Baskala Sakha is known to us. The Katha Upanisad belongs to the Katha Sakha of the Krsna- Yajurveda. Did I not tell you that the Upanisad comes at the end of the Aranyaka? The Kathopanisad is very famous and is one of the major Upanisads; but its Aranyaka is not available. The Atharvaveda is totally forgotten in the South and is studied but in one or two parts of the country. But still extant are Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya which belong to this Veda and which form part of the Dasopanisad.
All this points to the fact that, while parts of many Vedic recensions that pertain to karma or works have become extinct or have been forgotten, many of the Upanisads which are the means of jnana have been preserved. Great care has been taken to protect that part of our heritage which shows us the way to wisdom and light.
The Upanisads are believed to have been large in number. Two hundred years ago, an ascetic belonging to Kanchipuram wrote a commentary on 108 Upanisads. He earned the name of "Upanisad Brahmendra". His monastic institution is still to be seen in Kanchi..
Notes & References
Bhagavadgita, 2. 42-45
Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 4.5.7.
Ibid. 4. 24-27
Isaavasya Upanisad, I & 2
Mundaka Upanisad 1.1.5
Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 1.4.10
Taittiriya Upanisad, 2.8.1
Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 4.3. 33
See note 10 above.