Glimpse of Vedic Era - Concept of Brahman, God & Dharma in Vedas - Ancient History Series

Vedic period is the starting phase of Indian Civilization and is recorded in the Vedas (वेद) constituting of the works known as the four Vedic Samhitas (संहिता) being Rigveda (ऋग्वेद), Samveda (सामवेद), Yajurveda (यजुर्वेद) and Atharvaveda (अथर्ववेद) together with the supplementary works known as the Brahmanas (ब्राह्मण), the work of rituals, and the philosophical works known as the Aranyakas (आरण्यक - वन में लिखा गया) and Upanishads (उपनिषद्). If we imagine Vedic Period as a Tree of Knowledge, Rigveda is the root with its many branches sprouting out of it through the ages in different schools and sects.

Vedic Era - Brahman, God and Dharma
Rigveda is the earliest book of India and of mankind. A reference from Max Muller is relevant to cite here that "There is nothing more ancient than the hymns of the Rigveda." But, thought ancient, it shows the zenith of wisdom. We see in it both the dawn and meridian of culture, as well appear from an analysis of its thought.

Concept of Brahman and Oneness of God

Firstly, it is dominated by a sense of the Infinite behind the Finite, the One creating Itself into the Many by way, and under an impulse, of self-expression. "He the one wishing to be the Many (asisha) inhibited His primary self plunged in meditation (prathamachchhat), and evolved into the world of matter and mind, into both of which He entered" (RV X, 81, 1). And again: "He the One desired that He should create Himself into the Many." This idea of One God finds expression in many a hymn of the Rigveda. One is a prayer straightway addressed to the Deity worshipped in the name of Parama-brahmajnana (X 71, 1).

There is hardly any religion which conceives of the Divine as Formless Supreme Knowledge and not merely as a concrete Deity with form. In the same strain, another hymn calls the Divine as Atma anastha (without form) transforming Itself into matter (Bhumi), Life (asuh=prana), and Blood (asrik = sonita). The one (Ekam) is described as Aja (birthless). Another hymn conceived of the Jivatma and Paramatma (Individual Soul and Oversoul) as "two birds preching on the same branch of a tree (suparna sayuja sakhaya), of which one eats its sweet (svadu) fruit (of worldly enjoyment or samsara), and the other looks on with indifference" (unmoved by maya).

Thus the Rigveda presents the highest and most abstract conception of Divinity conceivable. Its great Gayatri Mantra even defines the Divine as the principle of thinking (manana) in the mind of man. Man's duty is to apply this power of thinking, this gift of mind, to the constant contemplation of the Divine (dhimahi). Thus there is to be a constant communion (yoga) of the individual mind with the Universal Mind which informs it. Rigveda III, 54, 8 speaks of the Universe as "an integral multiplicity" (Visvam Ekam). IV, 40, 5 describes the One fold world of Matter (dravinam) and Mind and Rita, Cosmic Law, free and all-prevading (satyam avadhyam sarvadhishthanam brahma-tatvam).

No doubt,the Rigveda mentions a multiplicity of Deities that are worshipped, but each such Deity is worshipped in authority, points out in his Nirukta (VII 4). "Owing to Its greatness, the One Sould is described as if It were many." Rigveda (I 46) explains that "what is the One Reality (Ekam Sat) the Sages call by many names." (bahudha Vadanti). Again, "the Sages (kavayah) conceive of the One in many ways" (ekam santam bahudha kalpayanti).
Another characteristic of Vedic thought is its application to God of abstract names like Rita and Satya, together with names like Sunrita (Bounty), Sraddha (Faith) or Dana (Charity) (X. 177). This last hymn is the earliest conception of Religion as Positivism or Social Service, enjoining upon man his first duty to feed the hungry as a gift of life itself, for Hunger is a form of death. This idea receives a classical expression in the Sri-Chandi of markandeya Purana, offering worship to the Supreme dwelling in all the creatures as the elemental principle of a Great Hunger (Ya Devi sarva-bhuteshu kshudha-rupena samsthita).

The hymn goes on to state: "The rich man should give unto the needy, considering that riches are like chariot-wheels revolving: not to one man they come, now to another. The foolish man who does not give, has no advantage, as he fosters no friend or companion, and eats alone." Again, God is described in the Rigveda (VIII 79, 2) as the God of Social Service, "clothing the naked, curing the sick, making the blind see, and the cripple walk about" (Abhyurnoti yannagnam bhishakti visvam yat aturam premandhah khyannih srono bhut).

The conception of One God leads to that of the oneness of all life, a most cosmopolitan univarsal outlook as its natural consequence. For instance, in spite of the conflict between the Aryan and the non-Aryan (Dasa) in Vedic politics, Rigvedic thought is liberal enough to affirm that "both Arya and Dasa belong equally to that glorious God (Arih) to whom belongs the universe (Visva)." (VIII, 51, 9). The Rigveda has even a prayer for the forgiveness of sins committed against the foreigner (V, 85, 7). The Atharva Veda contains the culminating conception that God is a much of the foreigner (Videsya) as of one's own land (Samdesya). Indeed democracy was the natural product of Vedic thought, emphasizing the unity of all life, the One in the Many.

Essentials of Dharma according to Vedas

The Atharva-Veda (XII, 1, 1) summaries the essentials of Dharma as consisting of :-
  1. Satyam Brihat. -Satya, Truth, comprehends within itself all religions which admit it as a fundamental obligation. The Upanishadas state that "the Atman is to be attained (labhya) only through Truth (Satyena)" and, further, that Truth alone triumphs in the end, and not Untruth (Satyameva jayate nanritam) (Mundaka III, 1, 5-6).
  2. Ritam Ugram. God is described as the Cosmin Law which governs the Universe and is inexorable (ugra). The concept of Rita leads to that of Karma, with its inescapable effects.
  3. Diksha or initiation of the pupil by his Guru in spiritual life. This initiation is the first requisite of religion.
  4. Tapas or the discipline of Brahmacharya, following Diksha.
  5. Brahman, one who is a master of Vedic texts or Mantras essential in the training of the mind.
  6. Yajna or the ritual of self-sacrifice of various kinds which are well described in the Bragavad Gita, such as Jnana-yajna or Tapo-yajna. The Vedic idea of Religion is that it is revealed by God Himself at creation. Creation originated from the impulse of the One to create Himself into the Many (Sa akamayata bahusyam prajayeya), but He had to find out of Himself the material for His projected external creation by offering in a cosmic sacrifice his own Virat Deha by self-immolation, and maintaining the creation by breathing life into it. Man is created after God's image and so he must follow his Creator in maintaining his own little system and creation by his self-sacrifice for its good. This self-sacrifice is what is called yajna by the Veda, and constitutes the Religion of Man. It is social service to which he dedicates his life. Life is an offering to Duty.