What is Vedic Literature

By Stephen Knapp

 

      To begin explaining what is really Vedic, we can understand that the word Veda has its root in the Sanskrit vid, which means “to know”, or simply “knowledge”. The word Veda also has three root meanings, representing its connection with the power of God, namely 1) that Vedic knowledge is eternal; 2) Veda is the essential knowledge itself, which means that it provides knowledge of God, or that we can know the Supreme through the Veda; and 3) Veda gives the most desirable thing to the souls, which is the Divine Bliss that comes from our connection with God. Therefore, any part of the literature which does this and supports the Vedic conclusion is a part of the Vedic literature. This is confirmed in the Bhavishya Purana (Brahma Parva, 4.96): “The Vedas, Vedic mantras, and Vedic literature are three parts of the same body.”

      According to Vedic tradition, when the Supreme Lord created this material world, His transcendental energy pervaded every corner of it. This spiritual energy was the pure vibration, shabda-brahma, in which the Supreme Himself can be found. It is explained that first there was the subtle vibration of spiritual sound, the eternal and spiritual vibration called the shabda-brahman. It is explained that through the worship of this subtle form of the Vedas, mystics can cleanse their hearts of all faults and impurities caused by the association of various material substances and actions. Thus they can attain liberation from further cycles of birth and death. From this spiritual sound vibration, Srila Vyasadeva compiled the Vedic literature. (Bhag.12.6.37-38)

      As most scholars on Vedic philosophy know, when you say Vedas you refer to the original four Vedas: the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas. From the four main Vedas are branches or appendices called Brahmanas, which relate to rituals and ceremonies. From these are derived the Aranyakas. The Upanishads are the appendices (the secret and esoteric knowledge" secret and esoteric knowledge) of the Aranyakas. When you say Veda (without the s) you not only refer to the four Vedas, but also to the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads, or all the texts that are considered Shruti. Shruti is considered the original revealed knowledge which was unveiled to self-realized sages. Shruti also means that which is heard. It was first heard from God and then was heard and passed along in an oral tradition in the association of other sages. In this way, it was protected from being misunderstood or misused. It is this sound vibration that will awaken mankind’s higher awareness and inclination to attain the spiritual dimension, thus providing the means for mankind’s liberation from material existence.

      The remaining parts of Vedic literature, besides the Tantras and Agamas, consist of the Mahabharata and Bhagavad-gita, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. These are the Itihasas or histories and supplemental portions of the Vedic literature, which is called Shmriti, or that which is remembered. The Puranas are especially an elaboration of the original Vedic concepts and philosophy of the four Vedas and Upanishads. So when we say “Vedic literature,” it refers to both Shruti and Shmriti in a general way. However, some scholars think that the Shruti is more important than the Shmriti. So some may object to the way I alternately use the words “Vedas” and “Vedic literature” to refer to the same thing, which includes all of the Vedic texts, both the early Shruti and later Shmriti.

      The reason I do this is that I present Vedic evidence from any portion of the Vedic literature, and I often use quotes from the Puranas. To leave out the supplemental portions of the Vedic literature would deprive the reader of an enormous amount of Vedic knowledge and elaborated explanations. Furthermore, some of the greatest of spiritual authorities, like Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, and others, have presented Shmriti as valid evidence of spiritual truths and wrote commentaries on Bhagavad-gita. In fact, Madhvacharya, in his commentary on the Vedanta-sutras (2.1.6), quotes the Bhavishya Purana, which states: “The Rig-veda, Yajur-veda, Sama-veda, Atharva-veda, Mahabharata, Pancharatra, and the original Ramayana are all considered Vedic literature. The Vaishnava supplements, the Puranas, are also Vedic literature.” Even the Chandogya Upanishad (7.1.4) mentions the Puranas as the fifth Veda. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.4.20) also clearly agrees with this, saying, “The four divisions of the original sources of knowledge (the Vedas) were made separately. But the historical facts and authentic stories mentioned in the Puranas are called the fifth Veda.”

      The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.5.11) also relates: “The Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas, the Itihasas, Puranas, Upanishads, verses and mantras, sutras, and the spiritual knowledge and explanations within, all emanate from the Supreme Being.” It not only says it once, but the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says it again (2.4.10), “As from a fire kindled with wet fuel, clouds of smoke issue forth, so, my dear, verily, from this glorious great God has been breathed forth the Rig-veda, the Yajur-veda, the Sama-veda, Atharvanagirasa, Itihasas, Puranas, science of knowledge, mystic doctrines or Upanishads, pithy verses, aphorisms, elucidations, and commentaries. From Him, indeed, are all these breathed forth.” Thus, they all have importance in presenting Vedic information, and one should not be biased toward one set of shastra or scripture to exclude the other.

      This point is confirmed again in the Bhavishya Purana (Brahma Parva, 7.55): "Shruti refers to the four Vedas and Shmriti refers to the revealed scriptures that were compiled in pursuance of the Vedic version. One should consult both kinds of scriptures as a guide to all one’s activities because religion that does not refer to them is simply a disturbance to society.”

      The Mahabharata (Adi Parva 1.267) explains the necessity of understanding Vedic knowledge with the help of the Puranas: “One should expand and accept the meaning of the Vedas with the help of the Itihasas and Puranas. The Vedas are afraid of being mistreated by one who is ignorant of the Itihasas and Puranas.” This is quite similar to what is related in the Prabhasa-khanda section (2.93) of the Skanda Purana, where it is said, “I consider the Puranas equal to the Vedas. . . The Vedas feared that their purport would be distorted by inattentive listening, but their purport was established long ago by the Itihasas and Puranas. What is not found in the Vedas is found in the shmritis. And what is not found in either is described in the Puranas. A person who knows the four Vedas along with the Upanishads but who does not know the Puranas is not very learned.” In this way, we should understand that one’s education in Vedic culture and science is not complete if one excludes the understanding and knowledge given in the Puranas.

      To further verify this point, in the Naradiya Purana Lord Shiva is quoted as saying to his wife Parvati that, “I consider the message of the Puranas to be more important than that of the Vedas. All that is in the Vedas is in the Puranas without a doubt.” So I relate this simply for those who feel that there should be some further distinction between Shruti and Shmriti and may object to the way I use the terms “Vedas” and “Vedic literature” to mean the same thing, although many parts of the Vedic literature point to the need for using the Puranas and other portions of the Shmritis to more fully understand the depths of Vedic knowledge.

[This article and more information at  www.stephen-knapp.com]

horizontal rule

[Home] [The Books by Stephen Knapp] [Book Reviews] [Order Form] [The World Relief Network] [Articles to Read] [Seeing Spiritual India] [Introductory and Travel Videos] [A Little Book of Prayers Mantras & Gayatris] [Krishna Darshan Art Gallery] [Vegetarian Recipes and Resources] [Stay in Touch with Us] [Links to Other Websites] [Jokes and Anecdotes] [How You Can Help]