The Vedas - The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy


Refresher Course


The Themes of Indian Metaphysics and Epistemology


Punjab University Chandigarh

Valedictory Address


Kireet Joshi


June 12, 2000

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The ancient Indian tradition looked upon the Veda as a book of knowledge, and it has since been revered as the origin and standard of all that can be held as authoritative and true in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, in Tantras and Puranas, in the tradition of great philosophical schools and in the teachings of famous saints and sages. The composers of the great mass of inspired Vedic poetry were given the name Kavi, which had the sense of a seer of truth, the Veda itself describes them as "kavayah satya shrutah", seers who are hearers of the truth and the Veda itself was called, Śruti, a word which came to mean "revealed Scripture".

It is true that the ritualistic commentators, Yajnikas, tried to explain everything in the Veda as Karmakanda as distinguished from Upanishads, which came to be identified as Jnanakanda, but both Upanishads and the Gita look on the Veda as a "Book of Knowledge". The seers of the Upanishads frequently appealed to the authority of the Veda for the truths themselves announced and these two (Vedas and Upanishads) afterwards came to be regarded as Śruti. All the orthodox systems of Indian philosophy accept Śruti as a supreme authority for spiritual knowledge.

According to the current interpretations, however, the hymns of the Veda are nothing more than the naive superstitious fantasies of materialistic barbarians concerned only with the most elementary moral notions or religious aspirations, although it is admitted that there are occasional passages of profound wisdom. These interpretations look upon the Upanishads as a true foundation or starting-point of the later religions and philosophies. And they point out that the Upanishads were a revolt of philosophical and speculative mind against the ritualistic materialism of the Vedas.

This is not the occasion to discuss these current interpretations, but it may be urged that if these interpretations were correct, we would be obliged to believe that the profound and ultimate thoughts, systems of subtle and elaborate psychology that we find in the substance of the Upanishad took birth out of a previous void, − a position that can be accepted only by denying the sound principle of the progress of the human mind according to which knowledge is built by a slow growth from knowledge to knowledge or by renewal and enlargement of previous knowledge or by working on all imperfect clues leading to new discoveries.

It would, therefore, seem logical to accept the ancient Indian tradition that the Upanishads are truly Vedanta, both as an end of the Veda and as the pinnacle of the knowledge contained in the Veda. We may also urge that in ancient Europe, too, the schools of intellectual philosophies were preceded by the secret doctrines of the mystics. It can easily be admitted that the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries prepared the rich soil of mentality out of which sprang Pythagoras and Plato. Could we not suppose similar starting-point for the later march of thought in India? Indeed, the forms and symbols of thought, which we find in the Upanishads and much of the substance of the Brahmanas can be traced to period of the Vedic Samhitas in India in which thought took the form or veil of secret teachings such as those of the Greek mysteries.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

It may be seen that the secret spiritual and psychological teaching was expressed in the Veda in a figurative and symbolic language, and the Rishis of the Veda expressed their knowledge, in secret words, ninya vachamsi, that conveyed their meanings to the initiated or awakened in knowledge. There are two great works of Sri Aurobindo, "The Secret of the Veda" and "Hymns to the Mystic Fire", which showed convincingly the secret import of Vedic terms, the sense of Vedic symbols and the psychological functions of the Gods that were looked upon as various aspects or names of the One and Supreme Reality. In the light of these great works, it is easier now to elucidate effectively the Vedic system of knowledge and the parts of the Upanishads that remain yet unintelligible or ill-understood as well as much of the origin of the Puranas. It is also easier to explain and justify rationally the whole ancient tradition of India and to affirm that the Vedanta, Puranas, Tantra, the philosophical schools and the great Indian religions do go back in their source to the Vedic origins, and we can now confidently claim that the so-called incoherencies of the Vedic texts exists in appearance only because the real thread of the sense is to be found in an inner meaning, and that the hymns appear in the light of the real thread as organic wholes and expressions, which are just and precise.

The contents of the Vedas may rightly be seen, not as speculations of intellectual thought, but as discoveries made by certain faculties, the operations of which can, it is claimed, perceive truths and realities directly, intimately and by identity. There are explicit references in the Veda to these faculties, which are given symbolic names, the meanings of which are no more difficult to determine. If we study the hymns addressed to Bharati or Mahati, to lla, Saraswati, Sarmā and Dakshā, we can see[i], that Bharati or Mahati is the faculty that perceives luminous vastness, that Ila is the faculty of revelation, Saraswati is the faculty of inspiration, Sarmā is the faculty of intuition and Dakshā is faculty of discrimination. They are, we might say, to use the expression of the Upanishads, the inner faculties that are the source of our outer faculties, the inner eye of the outer eye, the inner ear of the outer ear, śrotrasya śrotraṁ manaso mano yat | vāco ha vācaṁ sa u prāṇasya prāṇaḥ |cakṣuṣaścakṣuratimucya dhīrāḥ. And if we study the Vedic texts more closely, we shall find in them the secrets of the processes of the Vedic Yoga by means of which these faculties can be brought out of their latency, cultivated and perfected. And if we inquire as to what were the contents of the knowledge gained through the exercise of these faculties, we shall discern in the texts of the Veda, not indeed a systematic body of

philosophy, but which can still be described as a doctrine of the mystics, a doctrine, the terms of which are complete, the structure of which is supple, and the thought of which is practical and experimental, vibrating with sure experience.


[i] Vide, in particular, Rigveda 1.13.19, 10.110, 1.8.8, 5.4.4, 1.3, 5.45, 1.104.5, 3.31.6, 4:16.8, 1.72, 1.62.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

This doctrine is related to the mystery of the Ultimate Reality, the secret of the manifestation of the universe, the complexity of the relationship between the transcendental, universal and the individual, the individual in the bondage of the triple cord of the body, life and the mind, and the individual in the process of expansion and universalisation by the aid of cosmic powers, gods and goddesses against the obstructing forces of ignorance, Vritra, Dasyus, Panis, etc., and the individual liberating itself from a hundred iron walls like an upsoaring Swan or the Falcon and wresting from the jealous guardians of felicity the wine of the Soma, the drink of which bestows the realisation of immortality and summits of perfection.

The most important doctrine of the Vedas relates to the goal of immortality and the process by which immortality can be achieved. In one of the Hymns (Rigveda 1.72.9), Parashara Shaktya puts before us the clear and sufficient formula:

आ ये विश्वा॑ स्वप॒त्यानि॑ त॒स्थुः
कृ॑ण्वा॒नासो॑ अमृत॒त्वाय॑ गा॒तुम् ।
म॒ह्ना म॒हद्भि॑: पृथि॒वी वि त॑स्थे
मा॒ता पु॒त्रैरदि॑ति॒र्धाय॑से॒ वेः ॥

"They who entered into all things that bear right fruit form a path towards the immortality; earth to stood for them by the greatness and by the Great Ones, the mother Aditi with her sons came or manifested herself for the upholding".

Sri Aurobindo, commenting on this explains the significance of this Hymn as follows:

"The physical being, visited by the greatness of the infinite planes above and by the power of the great godheads who reign on those planes breaks its limits, opens out to the Light and is upheld in its new wideness by the infinite Consciousness, mother Aditi, and her sons, the divine Powers of this supreme Deva. This is the Vedic immortality."

Again, in another Hymn, Parashara gives an indication of the means of arriving at immortality:

दधन् ऋतं धनयन् अस्य धीतिम् आदीत् अर्यो दिधिष्वो विभृताः।
अतृष्यन्तीः अपसो यन्ति अच्छा देवान् जन्म प्रयसा वर्धयन्तीः।।
(Rigveda, I. 71.3)

"They held the truth, they enriched its thought, then indeed, aspiring souls, they, holding it in thought, bore it, diffused in all their beings."

In other words, it is by the practice of the truth that the entire thought- consciousness becomes vibrant with what the Vedas called the sevenfold truth-consciousness, and this consciousness is the highest universal consciousness; hence, the sense of universal diffusion of Truth and the birth and the activity of all the Godheads in us assures an universal and immortal life in place of our present limited mortality.

These and many other Hymns need to be studied in depth because the knowledge which they contain is indispensable to the understanding of the concepts of liberation, immortality and perfection, which are referred to frequently in connection with the highest purushartha in Indian Philosophy.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

It is in the Vedas that we find the original synthesis of which the synthesis of the Upanishads and of the Bhagavadgita are later developments and which is once again present in a significant way in the synthesis of the Tantras and which is also the acknowledged part of the latest integral philosophy and Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. It is in the Vedas that we find the secret clues to the difficult and subtle concepts of Brahman, Atman, Purusha, Ishwara, of Māyā, Prakriti, Shakti, of Akshara and Kshara Purusha, of Aparā and Parā Prakriti, of Purushottama, Aditi, and Jiva, of the timeless eternal and of time-eternity, of Adhidaiva, Adhibhuta, Adhyātma and Adhiyajna, of Swabhāva and Dharma and Swadharma and of a number of other concepts, which we find in the various systems of Indian philosophy. It is in the Veda that we find the source of orientation of Indian philosophy towards liberation, moksha, and its ceaseless striving to develop scientific processes of Yoga by which one can attain to Brāhmisthiti, Nirvana, Kaivalya, Sālokya Mukti, Sāyujyamukti, Sādharmyamukti, and various other perfections of the lower and the higher instruments through which the soul in bondage strives to attain and soul in liberation manifests the highest divine Beatitude.

The Veda may rightly be considered to be a vast and complex product of the Age of Intuition, it is a record of intuitive experiences of the loftiest order. The peculiar system of images through which these experiences were expressed, can be considered to be the beginning of symbolic or figurative imagery, which reappears constantly in the later Indian writings, in the figures of the Tantra and the Purana, in the figures of Vaishanava poets, and they are to be found also in a certain way even in the modern poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The Veda helps us to understand the original shaping not only of the master ideas that govern the mind of India, but all its characteristic types of spiritual experience, its turn of imagination, its creative temperament and the kind of psychic forms in which we persistently interpret self and things and life and the universe.

There are three characteristics of the Vedic hymns: firstly, there is among them a constant sense of the infinite, of the cosmic; secondly, there is a tendency to see and render spiritual experience in a great richness of images taken from the inner psychic plane or in physical planes, transmuted by the stress of a psychic significance and impression and line and idea colour; its third tendency is to image the terrestrial life often magnified, as in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, or else subtlised in the transparencies of a larger atmosphere. As a result, when we study the Veda, we find that the spiritual, the infinite, is near and real and the gods are real and the world beyond not so much beyond as immanent in our own existence.

Upanishads come much later than the Vedas, since they were preceded by Brahmanas and Aranyakas that intervened after the purity of the Vedic knowledge began to be forgotten or lost considerably It appears that, but for the search of the Upanishads, the ancient truths of the Veda and the flowering of the intuitive faculties would have been followed by the pragmatic and theoretical intellectuality in such a way that the development of the Indian philosophy would have taken a turn quite different from what it actually took, and it could have been divorced gradually, as it happened in the West, from the earlier mystic and spiritual tradition. The way in which the Upanishads took birth and developed in India does not seem to have any parallel in the history of any country in the world, and the significance of the Upanishads, can, therefore, be perceived as a unique feature of the resurgence in the ancient cycle of the age of intuition.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

We have to note that the Rishis of the Upanishads were, like the Vedic Rishis, seers of the truth and they cannot be described merely as philosophical thinkers, although the truth they perceived by intuitive faculties was clothed by lesser imagery and instead with a strong body of intuitive idea and disclosing image. The language of the Upanishads has a special quality of ideal transparency through which we are enabled to look into the illimitable; we feel concretely how those Rishis fathomed things in the light of self-existence and saw them with the eye of the infinite; the words of the Upanishads remained always alive and immortal and of inexhaustible significance.

The Upanishads can easily be perceived as books of knowledge, but knowledge in the profounder Indian sense of the word Jñāna.

This knowledge is not a mere thinking and considering by the intelligence, the pursuit and grasping of a mental form of truth for the intellectual mind but a seeing of it with the soul and a total living in it with the power of the inner being, a spiritual seizing by a kind of identification with the object of knowledge. Sri Aurobindo points out that it is by an error that scholars sometimes speak of great debates or discussions in the Upanishads. As he explains, "Wherever there is the appearance of a controversy, it is not by discussion, by dialectics or the use of the logical reasoning that it proceeds, but by a comparison of intuitions and experiences in which the less luminous gives place to the more luminous, the narrower, faultier or less essential to more comprehensive, more perfect, more essential. The question asked by one thinker of another is "What dost thou know?" not "What dost thou think?" nor "To what conclusion has thy reasoning arrived?" Nowhere in the Upanishads do we find any trace of logical reasoning urged in support of the truths of Vedanta. Intuition, the sages seem to have held, must be corrected by a more perfect intuition; logical reasoning cannot be its judge."[i]

The Upanishads are rightly regarded as the supreme work of the Indian mind; they are epic hymns of self-knowledge, world- knowledge and God-knowledge, and they have seized the message of the Intuition and formulated it in three declarations, which have profoundly influenced the subsequent developments of knowledge and thought, "I am He,","Thou art That, O Shevatketu.","All this is the Brahman; this Self is the Brahaman."


[i] Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine, Centenary Edition, Vol.18, p.69.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

In due course, however, the age of the intuitive knowledge represented by the Upanishads gave place to the age of rational knowledge. The inspired Scripture made room for metaphysical philosophy, even as afterwards metaphysical philosophy gave place to experimental science. The Vedantic psychology itself had recognised the role of Reason and determined its place as something intermediate between the physical senses and supra-rational Intuition. This psychology did not condemn Reason but recognised only its limitations. The development of the Reason by a process of continuous questioning, pari prashnena, was emphasised, but it also laid down the processes of Yogic methods by which intellect could be brought to a state of concentration on the real or supreme object of knowledge, so that, in a state of complete impartiality and absence of any subjective interference, the object of knowledge can be directly perceived, shākshātkāra. The Kathopanishad gives in the following verses the interrelationship between senses, mind, intellect and the real Self, the great Object of knowledge:

"Now he that is without knowledge, with his mind ever unapplied, his senses are to him as wild horses and will not obey their driver of the chariot.
"But he that has knowledge with his mind ever applied, his senses are to him as noble steeds and they obey the driver.
"Yea, he that is without knowledge and is unmindful and is ever unclean, reaches not that goal, but wanders in the cycle of phenomena....
"That man who uses the mind for reins and the knowledge for the driver, reaches the end of his road, the highest seat of Vishnu.
"Than the senses the objects of sense are higher: and higher than the objects of sense is the Mind: and higher than the Mind is the faculty of knowledge: and than that the Great-Self is higher

"And higher than the Great-Self is the Unmanifest and higher than the Unmanifested is the Purusha: than the Purusha there is none higher: He is the culmination, He is the highest goal of the journey."[i]

This scheme of Vedantic knowledge has been basically accepted not only by the orthodox Indian philosophies but also by other systems of philosophy with some modifications except, of course, the materialistic philosophy of Charvaka. It may be said that Indian philosophers recognised in the Shruti, the earlier results of intuitions, an authority superior to Reason. Those who did not recognise the Shruti, however, still refer to the intuitive or spiritual experience to be higher than Reason and as the goal to be attained for purposes of liberation, mukti, kaivalya, nirvana. But these philosophers, at the same time, started from Reason and tested the results it gave them, holding only those conclusions to be followed, which were supported by the supreme authority of Shruti or direct spiritual experience.

[i] (Kathopanishad, First Cycle, Third Chapter, 5,6,7,9,10,11.)


The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

If we study closely the development of Indian philosophy, we shall find that intellectual speculations tended at first to keep near at the centre to the highest and profoundest experience and proceeded with the united consent of the two great authorities, Reason and Intuition. But in the later developments of Indian philosophy, the natural trend of Reason to assert its own supremacy triumphed in effect over the theory of its subordination. This can be seen clearly if we examine the history of the rise of conflict among schools, each of which founded itself in theory on the Veda or on spiritual experience and used its texts or its formulations as weapons against others. Thus unity of the first intuitive knowledge was broken and ingenuity of the logicians was always able to discover devices, methods of interpretations, standards of varying value by which inconvenient texts of the Scripture or formulations of spiritual experiences could be practically annulled and entire freedom acquired for their metaphysical speculations.

One of the greatest efforts of developing a system of synthesis after the age of Upanishads is to be found in the Bhagvadgita. The speciality of this synthesis is that it starts from the Upanishadic synthesis and builds upon the basis of essential Upanishadic idea another harmony of the three great means of powers, Love, Knowledge and Works through which the soul of man can directly approach and cast itself into the eternal. Some of the great concepts of the Veda become clearer in the Gita. What was rita-chit or Aditi in the Veda is described in the Gita as Para  Parakriti, and what was Purusha in the Veda is the triple Purusha of the Gita, Kshra, Akshara and Purushottama.

The Veda describes the one reality as the wonderful unity in the following Hymn in the colloquy of Indra and Agastaya as follows:

न नूनमस्ति नो श्वः कस्तद् वेद यददभुदम्।
अन्यस्य चित्तमभि संचरेण्यमुताधीतं वि नश्यति। 1.70.1

"It is not now nor is it tomorrow; who knoweth that which is Supreme and Wonderful? It has motion and action in the consciousness of another, but when It is approached by the Thought, It vanishes."(Rigveda 1,170.1)

The same wonderful reality is described in other terms but with a greater clarity by Sri Krishna in the following verses:

मया ततमिदं सर्वं जगदव्यक्तमूर्तिना |
मत्स्थानि सर्वभूतानि न चाहं तेष्ववस्थित: || 4||

न च मत्स्थानि भूतानि पश्य मे योगमैश्वरम् |
भूतभृन्न च भूतस्थो ममात्मा भूतभावन: || 5||

"This entire world is pervaded by Me in my unmanifested form. All beings abide in me, but I do not abide in them. And yet these beings do not exist in Me; behold my Divine wonder and mystery. Although my Spirit is a source of all beings and sustainer of the beings, yet I do not abide in them."[i].

[i] Gita Ch. IX -4, 5

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

Even the triple path of the Gita is in essence triple path of the Veda because the Veda is the book of Knowledge (Jnanakanda), the book of work (karmakanda), and the book of worship and prayer and devotion (upasana) at once. But as every synthesis in Indian thought is a progression from the earlier synthesis, we find in the Gita an extraordinary exposition of the path of complete and unreserved surrender, which is not absent in the Veda but which is expressed more as a seed rather than in fullness.

The Bhagwad Gita was already an early part of  Age of Reason in India, which succeeded the early age of Intuition, reached climactic peaks, and the movement of the Indian mind during this age is represented by two simultaneous developments: on one side, there was strenuous philosophical thinking, which got crystallised into the great philosophical systems; and on the other side, there was an equally insistent endeavour to formulate in a clear body and with strict cogency an ethical, social and political ideal and practice of a consistent and organised system of individual and communal life, which resulted in authoritative social treatises or shastras.

But after centuries of what may be called the strong early manhood of the people and its culture, there came about a long and opulent maturity and, as its sequence, an equally opulent and richly coloured decline. The Veda continued throughout this long period as a major influence and its offshoots developed like a huge banyan tree. A stage was reached when the grand basic principles and lines of Indian religions, philosophies, and social and political institutions had already been found and built; but there was still ample room for creation and discovery, and there were powerful developments of science, art and literature. We also find great development of the hedonistic and sensuous sides of experience in a pre-eminent manner. We notice that a tendency that had begun in "earlier times and created Buddhism, Jainism and great schools of philosophy reached its greatest time of elaborate and careful reasoning, minute criticism and analysis and forceful logical construction and systematisation in the abundant philosophical writings of the period between the 6th and 13th centuries marked specially by the works of the great Vedantic philosophers, Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa. Thereafter, too, the intellectual rigour did not cease but survived its greatest days and continued even up to the 18th and 19th centuries. For we find, even in these later periods, emergence of great creative thinking and often new subtle philosophical ideas in the midst of incessant stream of commentary and criticism established lines. As a result, there was a tremendous diffusion of the philosophical intelligence with the consequence that even an average Indian, once awakened, responds with a surprising quickness to the most subtle and profound ideas.

But there was no doubt a gradual decline and even a great eclipse, although something of spiritual light continued to burn and the lamp of the Veda and the Upanishads never got extinguished. Nevertheless, there came about increasing ignorance, superstition and obscurity.

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

It is, however, remarkable that at the moment when the Indian intellectual light seemed to have drawn to a close, it began to revive at the first chance and there has begun again another cycle.

This new cycle commenced with the emergence of Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and the movement associated with the great names of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, as also a strong neo-Vaishnavic tendency. Brahmo Samaj combined the Vedantic inspiration and a strong dose of religious rationalism and intellectualism. The three stages of its growth corresponded with the philosophies, respectively, of Jnanayoga, Bhaktiyoga and Karmayoga. Arya Samaj founded itself on a fresh interpretation of the truth of the Veda and an attempt to apply old Vedic principles of life to modern conditions. Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have provided a very wide synthesis of past religious motives and spiritual experiences with a pronounced return to Vedanta. The neo-Vaishnavism has clearly declared the Veda and Upanishads, Bhagavadgita as its sources.

As we entered into the 20th century, Indian philosophy reached surprisingly its peak achievements in Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo provided not only a new synthesis of the Vedic synthesis, Upanishadic synthesis, synthesis of the Bhagavadgita and of Tantra, but also a new discovery and a new philosophy and Yoga of the integral aim of life. The philosophy of "The Life Divine" is a most comprehensive system, which has come to be acknowledged as the greatest synthesis of the East and the West.

In the academic circles of Indian philosophers, we find a serious understanding of the long history of various schools of Indian philosophy and also a comparative study in the light of strenuous study of the Western thought. Some of the best philosophers of India have attained high competence and even mastery over Western thought, and a few of them are being included among the front-rank philosophers of the world. In all these currents of philosophical thought, the Upanishads have played a major role, and it is becoming clearer that even the Veda needs to be revisited so as to derive from it fresh springs of re-invigorating waters.

Sri Aurobindo's great contribution in bringing to light a new interpretation of the Veda that establishes the Veda as a book of knowledge has brought back the primacy of the Veda, and considering that his major philosophical work "The Life Divine" contains a restatement of the Vedic knowledge in terms accessible to modern thought is a remarkable testimony of the perennial significance of the Veda in Indian philosophy. Thus the re-emergence of the Veda in our own times connects the past to the present, but does not imprison us to the past; on the contrary, the new spiritual experience and philosophical thought are also evident, and as we look forward to new developments in Indian philosophy, we are bound to hear again the prayer of the Veda welcoming new knowledge:

यु॒गेयु॑गे विद॒थ्यं॑ गृ॒णद्भ्योऽग्ने॑ र॒यिं य॒शसं॑ धेहि॒ नव्य॑सीम् ।[i]

O Fire, found for those who from age to age speak the word that is new, the word that is a discovery of knowledge, their glorious treasure.

[i][i] Rigveda, V1.8.5

The Veda and Indian Philosophy

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