The sound of the Vedas must be kept alive. For this purpose, it would be enough if Brahmins memorised the mantras and chanted them every day. The power of the sound, the power of the mantras vocalised, is sufficient to bring good to mankind. I said, you will remember, that chanting the Vedas with faith, even though without knowing their meaning, is "viryavattaram"'. The statement, however, does not fully reflect my view.
A student will have to spend many years to memorise the Vedas and study their meaning. It is not easy to keep him confined to the Vedic school for such a long time. I must explain here why I said that "it is not necessary to know the meaning of the Vedas and that their sound is all we need". To insist that a student should chant the Vedas only if he knows the meaning of the mantras is expecting too much of him. It might also mean that nobody would come forward even to memorise the hymns. In that case how will their sound be kept alive? That is why I said, half seriously and half sportively, that "the meaning is not necessary, the sound would be sufficient ...".
There must indeed be a large number of people who can chant the Vedas and keep their sound alive. In addition, there must be a system by which some of them at least will be taught their meaning. That is how we have come to be seriously involved in teaching the Veda-bhasya (commentary on the Vedas). It is because the Vedas are profound in their import that a number of great men have commented upon them. Their efforts must not go in vain.
We perform a number of rites in our home: marriage, Sraddha, upakarma, and so on, and during these functions we chant Vedic mantras as instructed by the priest. By the grace of Isvara we have not reached the unfortunate state of totally discarding such rites. However, there is a declining trend, a weakening of Vedic practices. One important reason for this is that we do not know the meaning of the mantras chanted. Educated people nowadays have no true involvement in rites in which they have to repeat the mantras after the priest without knowing the meaning.
We cannot expect to convince people that the chanting of the mantras (even without knowing their meaning) is beneficial. The hymns for each function are different and also different in significance. If we appreciate this fact, we will realise that there is a scientific basis for them. Besides, they have an emotional appeal which will be evident only when we know their meaning. So to know the meaning of the mantras is to have greater involvement in the functions in which they are chanted. That is the reason why the mouthing of syllables purposelessly has come to be [irreverently] likened to the chanting of "Sraddha mantras". The meaning of the mantras (including those chanted at Sraddhas) must be understood by the priest as well as by the performer of the rites; we must evolve a scheme for this purpose.
First the priest himself must know the meaning of the mantras and the significance of the rituals at which he officiates. Today the majority of priests are ignorant of the meaning of what they chant. If a karta or a yajamana (the man on whose behalf a rite is conducted) asks his priest, "What does this mean?", the latter is unable to give an answer. How would you then expect the karta to have faith in the rites?
I believe that many middle-aged people today are keen to know the meaning of the mantras. I also think that if they tend to lose faith in the rituals it is because they have to repeat parrot-like the hymns chanted by the priest. So we are making efforts to ensure that those who officiate at rituals (the upadhyayas) acquire proficiency in Veda-bhasya to enable them to explain the meaning of the mantras.
According to the Nirukta2 (one of the six Angas of the Vedas) a Brahmin comes under a curse by chanting the Vedas without knowing their meaning.
A number of great men have written commentaries on the Vedas so as to inspire faith in the sacraments. Sri Madhvacarya has written a commentary for the first 40 suktas of the first kanda of the Rgveda. Skandasvamin has also written a bhasya on the Rgveda. To Bhatta Bhaskara we owe a commentary on the Krsna-Yajurveda, and to Mahidhara on that of the Sukla-Yajurveda. In recent times, Dayananda Sarasvati3 and Aravinda Chose4 as well as his disciple Kapali Sastri have written expository treatises on the Vedas. Though there are so many commentaries, the one by Sri Sayanacarya is particularly famous: many scholars, including Western indologists, treat it as authoritative.
There are five Vedas if you reckon the Yajurveda to be two with its Sukla and Krsna divisions. Sayana has written commentaries on all the five. Expository treatises on the Vedas had been written before him, but he was the first to write a bhasya for all the Vedas.
Though Sayanacarya's commentary had been studied for centuries, a stage came recently when we feared that it would cease to hold any interest for students. Those who learned to chant the Vedas, without knowing their meaning, became priests while those who studied poetry and other subjects did not learn even to chant the mantras. So much so interest in the study of the Veda-bhasya declined. It was at this time that the Sastyabdapurti Trust5 was formed with a view to maintaining the study of the Veda-bhasya.
When the Trust started to conduct examinations, the Veda-bhasya meant no more than the printed text of the Vedic commentary kept in bookshops. The publishers were then worried that not many copies would be sold. After the creation of the Trust we gave students not only scholarships but also copies of the Veda-bhasya. Our worry now was whether there would be enough copies in stock for fresh students. It is with the grace of Parasakti, the Supreme Goddess, that we have succeeded in reviving the study of the Veda-bhasya. And so long as we have her grace there will be students ready to learn the subject and there will also be enough copies of the text.
On the eve of a wedding', upanayana or simanta ceremony6, we must consult a Vedic scholar who knows the Veda-bhasya to explain the meaning of the mantras employed in these rituals. On the day of the function itself the time at our disposal would be short. If we grasp the meaning and significance of the mantras beforehand we will have a more rewarding involvement in the function.
Nowadays, we do not have a month's time in which to prepare for a wedding. The problem facing the bride's people is which group is to play the band, who is to give the dance recital, how the marriage procession is to be conducted... We attach the least importance to that which is the very soul of a marriage sacrament, I mean the Vedic mantras chanted at the time. Those who recite these mantras, the Vedic panditas, are also treated as the least important to a marriage celebration. There are perhaps a few who have faith in the mantras and for their benefit and enlightenment at least some Brahmins must be instructed in the Veda-bhasya.
We print invitation cards for wedding and upanayana ceremonies and distribute them among a large number of friends and relatives - in fact we invite an entire town or village to the function. And we spend thousands. But we do not pay any attention to the ritual itself, to its significance. This is not right.
If we know the meaning of the mantras chanted at a function, we stand to gain more benefits from it. We go through rites because we do not have the courage to give them up. Similarly, we must come to realise that it is wrong to perform a rite without knowing the meaning of the mantras chanted; we must therefore take the help of a pandit in this matter. As mentioned before, going through works with a knowledge of the significance and meaning of the mantras is more beneficial7. We must have faith in the Upanisadic saying, "Yadeva vidyaya karoti tadeva viryavattaram bhavati."
At an upanayana, it is the brahmacarin (as the karta) who chants the mantras; similarly it is the groom alone who intones them at a marriage. What do you expect of all the invitees to do at such functions? Do they come only for the luncheon or dinner, or to keep chatting, to see the dance recital or to listen to the nagasvaram music? Is their part only to make themselves happy in this manner? No. The Vedic mantras deserve our highest respect. When they are being intoned we must honour them by listening to them intently. The mantras create well-being for all. If the invitees and others at a function listen to them and are able to follow their meaning they will earn merit even though they do not have the role of the karta in it.
Take the case of the asvamedha (horse sacrifice). Only a king who has subdued all other rulers, that is a maharaja or a sarvabhauma, is qualified to perform it. So only a monarch during a particular period in history, a monarch whose sway extends all over the world8, is entitled to conduct this sacrifice. The asvamedha brings more benefits than any other rite. Now the question arises: In any generation only one individual is perhaps capable of earning so much merit (by performing the horse sacrifice). Why are the Vedas so partial that they have made it impossible for the vast majority of people (who cannot perform the sacrifice themselves) to earn such merit? Is it true that only a ruler, who has immense strength and enormous resources at his command, is capable of benefiting from such a sacrifice? If people of good conduct and character are denied the same merit as a powerful emperor can earn, does it not amount to deceiving them? How can the Vedas be so partial to one man?
In truth no partiality can be ascribed to the Vedas. A Vedic rite is admittedly beneficial to the man who performs it. But, at the same time, it does good to all the world. If I light a lamp in the darkness here does it not bring light to all the people present and not to me alone?
It may be that the performer of a Vedic work receives more special benefits than others. But the Sastras show the way by which these others may also reap the same fruits as the karta - in fact the Vedas themselves mention it. If ordinary people cannot conduct a horse sacrifice they may get to know how it is performed. They may pay attention to the hymns chanted during the sacrifice and also try to follow their meaning. In this way they derive the full benefits of the sacrifice performed by an imperial ruler. This fact is referred to in the section dealing with horse sacrifices in the Vedas.
In the same way, whether it is a marriage or a funeral, the merit will be earned in full if we closely follow the rite and listen to the mantras with due knowledge of their meaning.
Notes & References
See the discourse on " Sound and Meaning ".
Part Nine deals with this Anga.
Svami Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-83), reformer and founder of the Arya Samaj. To him only the Vedas and the six darsanas (or systems of philosophy) mattered.
"Sri Aurobindo" (1872-1950) was a patriot and revolutionary who turned to philosophy and mysticism. The asrama founded by him in Pondicerri (Pondicherry) is called Auroville.
The Trust formed on the 60th birthday of the Paramaguru in 1954.
Dealt with in Chapter Sixteen.
Than performing them without knowing their meaning.
Perhaps what is meant is no more than a monarch who holds undisputed sway over a large kingdom.