In fact, Indian civilisation is supposed to be a continuing civilisation in spite of so many tides and ebbs which have come in the Indian history. We speak of the continuity of India's history. If there is any reason for this continuity, it is because of Upanishads. It is Upanishads which came as a kind of a buffer, between the past and the subsequent. It stands out as it were one peak which keeps its contact with the past and to which therefore the future can be connected more easily.
A time came in the history of India when the Vedic knowledge waned, got lost, it became vedavada. The Vedic knowledge, which was a synthesis of karma, upasana and jnana came to be exclusively emphasised as karmakanda. Therefore, it came out that Veda is nothing but karmakanda; even that theory came to be propounded. It came to be advocated that Veda is nothing but a science of action, not only that, it was only a science of sacrifice, it is nothing but yajna, Veda is nothing but a theory of yajna and that too yagna of the 'ordinary' kind, not in the sense in which Sri Krishna ultimately manifests it in the Bhagavad Gita, but mere ritualistic yajnas.
Question:What is the status of the Vedas in terms of History then? Are they not meant to be...?
Answer: No, they are actually. If you read the Vedas, surely they are compositions, and the Rishis themselves speak of their compositions when they say: `I have now composed this particular mantra and I have seen this and I have composed it.' So, it is a historical event. So, if you now ask the question: What is the period of the Veda? Which is a big controversy in the world history, because there are various theories like Dayananda Saraswati said: `it was written one lakh years ago', that is one extreme but some people even go beyond.
The most conservative view presented by Max Muller and others, the modern scholars, is that it is1500 B.C. You can see the gulf! Tilak spoke of 4500 or 5000 years ago; some others put it 30,000 years ago. So you can see that in this kind of a controversy, we can get very easily lost. There are arguments, counter arguments, and so on, and if you want to make a historical study, we shall be led away into a field which is far from our main purpose. But my normal answer to this question is the following:
First, consider the known history of India about which there is no controversy. There is no great controversy about the fact that Buddha lived 600 B.C. This is one historical fact, which no historian normally doubts. So consider that 600 years, and Buddha is supposed to have derided the Vedas, and the whole Vedic tradition, the yajnavada and he is supposed to have created a situation, which ultimately came to be known as `anti–Vedic'. So that means that by the time that the Buddha came, the Vedic system had gone down to a point where it had become largely the matter of 'sacrifices' against which Buddha spoke so much in opposition.
So, you have to give up time frame for Vedic knowledge to come down gradually to a point, where it had become largely a matter of rituals. Then you go back and say that it is known that Upanishads speak of the Veda from which they have derived their knowledge: therefore, Vedas must be before Upanishads. Then you give time for the composition of the Upanishads, – Upanishads which are regarded as the supreme literature of India. If there is any literature of the world, which can be regarded as supreme,…. at least in the context of India, it is the Upanishads. The very method of its composition of poetry, even its prose writings which are poetical, its brevity, its method of exposition, its perception of the Truth and the powerful method by which the Truth is conveyed. many people have tried afterwards in later times, but they are complete flops. This kind of Upanishadic writing, such a supreme literature cannot be imitated so easily! It is born out of a certain state of consciousness, which is developed over ages. So give time for the composition of Upanishads, and you can decide which are ancient Upanishads, which are medieval Upanishads, which are modern Upanishads that also can be listened. So give time for this that Upanishads were after the Aranyakas, and there are several Aranyakas, not one. So give time for the development of the Aranyakas. Then you give time because Aranyakas are supposed to be subsequent to Brahmanas, of which there is a number, so give time for the composition of Brahmanas. And Brahmanas are preceded by the Vedas.
There is also a story that first was Rig Veda, then came Yajur Veda, then came Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda was the last. So give time for all these and if you see the compositions, Rig Veda alone is ten thousand verses. What a tremendous amount! So first, you consider only the quantity; then you remember that the Vedas are only an anthology: Vedas are not complete books, they are called samhitas, they are only collections. It was Vyasa who, at a given time, is supposed to have known all the Vedas quite thoroughly well, and in order to summarize for the posterity, he collected the most important elements and put them together and classified and codified them in a particular manner, so this is an anthology. So give time for this anthology to develop into an anthology. So that there must have been a great study of so many Vedas so much that people could have made good selection out of them!