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The History of Vedantic Scripture
Unlike all other major ideas that influenced civilization and inspired religions, such as Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, as well as philosophies such as Confucianism, Platonism, Socratism, all of which are attributed to a once living person who has been deified or revered, the Vedas are not attributed to any God or living person. The only “deity” propounded by the Vedas is the non-dual, limitless Self, the true essence of all beings. While Hinduism originated from the Vedas and is the dominant Indian religion with countless symbolic gods and goddesses, the Vedas, which are sacred, impersonal and eternal scriptures, are not based on Hinduism or any other religious or philosophical ideas.
The Vedas form the ancient tradition called the sanatana dharma (the eternal way), which originated in what is now called India, but was once called Bharat, meaning the Land of Light – or “the people who uphold righteousness” – between 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Many scholars have argued this point, but most agree that the Vedas are at least 3,500 old, making Vedanta the oldest scriptural teaching on the planet.
All the above-mentioned spiritual paths and systems of thinking, including the Vedas (which are not a spiritual path as such), began as oral traditions and were eventually recorded and claimed by authors with varying degrees of modification and interpretation. Except for the Vedas, which have remained for the most part unauthored and free of interpretation, other than by people who do not understand their origin. The language the Vedas were spoken and then written in was Sanskrit, which is also the oldest spoken language, predating even Sumerian and Aramaic. But unlike other ancient languages, it was not written down until fairly recently, about 500 to 800 years ago.
There are four Vedas, the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.
Each Veda has two sections or portions (kanda):
1. “Karma kanda” – Action section
2. “Jnana kanda” – Knowledge section
The first section, the “karma kanda,” pertains to living in the world, offering rituals for specific purposes, like burial, marriage, having children, farming, making money, etc. They are for supplicating the gods to get what you want – i.e. security, pleasure, virtue –dualistic practices for the person identified with being a person, the doer who thinks it can accomplish fulfilment of its desires through right action, which it can to some degree. Thus the first section of each Veda is not suitable for the last and most important pursuit, liberation from bondage to objects (moksa).
For moksa, we need a very different teaching and qualifications for Self-inquiry. This teaching is found in the second section of the Vedas, the “jnana kanda,” the teachings of Vedanta, which roughly translated means “the knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge.” The teachings of Vedanta comprise the Upanishads, of which there are more than 200, the first ten being the most important. Some of the Upanishads are referenced by an author, but authorship has no bearing on what they are imparting, because it is the timeless and impersonal knowledge of the Self, consciousness. The authorship is in the form of commentaries (karikas) which unfold the meaning of the texts.
The Ten Major Upanishads in Their Respective Vedas
1. ĪTsa –Yajur Veda
2. Kena – Sama Veda
3. Katha – Yajur Veda
4. Prasna – Atharva Veda
5. Mundaka – Atharva Veda
6. Mandukya – Atharva Veda
7. Taittiriya – Yajur Veda
8. Aitareya – Rig Veda
9. Chandogya – Sama Veda
10. Brhadaranyaka – Yajur Veda
What Does the Word “Upanishad” Mean?
The meaning of the word “Upanishad” is Self-knowledge. The word itself is made up of two prefixes, upa and ni, and a word, sat or sad, from the root sad. This root has a threefold meaning: (1) removing, wearing out (visaranam); (2) putting an end to (avasadanam); (3) reaching or knowing (gamanam). The word “sat” is the agent of the action indicated by its root. Therefore it means that which can be removed, worn out, put an end to, and makes you reach or know. The prefix ni means “definiteness, that which is well-ascertained.” Therefore knowledge is called ni. The prefix upa means “that which is the nearest.” The nearest is oneself, “I,” the atma. The two prefixes together, upani-, mean “the definite knowledge of oneself.” This means of knowledge is Vedanta, the end portion of the Vedas, whose subject matter is Upanishad, Self-knowledge.
Vedanta is a doctrinal teaching dealing exclusively with the true nature of reality and negates the notion of doership. Although Vedanta originates from Vedic culture, the basic teaching is universal in that its fundamental principle is that reality is a non-duality as opposed to a duality. It reveals that there is only one principle operating, in which everything has its origin and is made up of, and that is consciousness, the Self. Therefore Vedanta in essence is not specific to any culture, race or religion, as consciousness does not “belong” to anyone. It is who we are because there is only one consciousness.
Also included in the teachings of Vedanta is the Bhagavad Gita, part of the Mahabharata (a Puranic, or mythical, text ostensibly written by Vedavyasa). The Bhagavad Gita is really the Vedas in code, told in the form of an allegory which, if properly understood and taught, unfolds the whole methodology of Vedanta. The last text included in the Vedanta pramana is the Brahma Sutras, which is a collection of intellectual discourses regarding very subtle issues collected and published by Badarayana. They are complicated discussions which are not necessary for Self-inquiry but are useful for teachers of Vedanta to understand the finer details of the Vedanta doctrine.
The methodology, or means of knowledge, Vedanta uses to teach was developed and perfected by the Indian culture, most recently by Sri Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century A.D., and is accredited to Hinduism. It is mostly thanks to Shankaracharya that the scriptures of Vedanta have been written down. Vedanta spread throughout the East, influencing the spiritual traditions of the whole of the Indochina Archipelago. In spite of India being taken over by many invaders over the millennia, the British in particular more recently, all of whom attempted to conquer India by cutting at the very foundation of her culture and spiritual tradition, the sanatana dharma is nonetheless still alive and well, informing the culture of modern-day India and spreading throughout the rest of the world.
Vedanta Is Not a Belief System
Vedanta is also referred to as apauruseya jnanum, meaning “beyond human logic, of divine origin.” While most religions also make this claim, they are all based on the interpretations or “divine inspiration” of a living person from a deity. Vedanta is unlike any other known doctrinal or scriptural knowledge in that it is not the contention of any person or persons. It stands independent of any deity, belief, inspiration or interpretation. Vedantic scriptures are called sruti, meaning “that which is heard.” Sruti is knowledge that is revealed to the human mind, not interpreted by it. It is thousands of years old and has been handed down through the ages to a long line of qualified teachers, called the sampradaya.
The teachings of Vedanta are proven knowledge and cannot be negated by any other knowledge, whereas all religious and philosophical beliefs are subjective and have no proofs, therefore they can be negated, as is evidenced by religious wars throughout the ages. Religions require faith without proof. Vedanta requires faith in the scriptures too, but it offers irrefutable proof that cannot be denied if understood. Whether you believe it or not, you are conscious – you just don’t understand what it means to be consciousness. Being bound by ignorance of your true nature as the non-dual Self, you are identified with the limited person.
A good example of revealed knowledge according to Vedantic terminology is Einstein’s “discovery” of the laws of relativity or gravity or Thomas Edison’s “discovery” of various applications of electricity. Discover means “to uncover.” Gravity and the law of relativity describe how the world works according to the laws of physics. Einstein did not invent gravity or relativity. Edison did not invent electricity either; it was always here, until it was “discovered” by earlier researchers.
Gravity, relativity and electricity all function the same way whether they are understood or not, nor do they care whether you believe in them or not. It is the same with Vedanta (Self-knowledge): it is always here, right in front of our noses and it is not changed or affected by our ignorance of it. Because we are blinded by ignorance, i.e. duality, we do not see it.
The revelations of Vedanta came to rishis, or “seers,” very pure souls who were able to understand their true meaning without claiming it for their own purposes. The scriptures of Vedanta are an office which passes on to different people in the lineage, or sampradaya. Authorship cannot belong to anyone, because the Self wrote them. Even though the means of knowledge Vedanta uses originates in Hinduism, Vedanta is not a belief system, a religion or a philosophy as it is often portrayed and thought to be by those who do not understand it. All beliefs and philosophical ideas are subjective interpretations based on dualistic thinking (ignorance). Self-knowledge is not personal truth. It is the Truth that consciousness, the Creator, the Creation and the individual are one, although they exist in apparently different orders of reality.
Vedanta is also called the science of consciousness (brahma vidya) because it relies on objective analysis of experience, not on a personal or philosophical theory of life. It is the science of life, as far as life is consciousness. The revelations of Vedanta are taught in the form of proofs (prakriyas), much like any scientific method employs to prove anything – through disinterested, independent, impersonal and rigorous investigation of the facts and the application of knowledge.
Vedanta predates all known religious or philosophical paths because it is based on the irreducible and irrefutable logic of human experience, albeit mostly unexamined. This experience has always been the same since life began, despite changing conditions and the fact that consciousness is not understood by most to be the nature of all things. I am always experiencing consciousness because it is who I am, but if I am ignorant of this fact, I think it is something separate from me that I must gain so I chase objects to complete me, and suffer.
For this reason, the main purpose of Vedanta is not to prove the existence of the Self because the Self/consciousness is self-evident. Its main aims are to prove that non-dual consciousness is the nature of reality and to reveal that the Self is consciousness. Vedanta does this by carefully unfolding the truth that the world of objects, including the physical body, mind and senses, are known to me, the Self, therefore they cannot be me. Everything is evident to me, the Self, and all evidence is in terms of knowledge, not experience. All knowledge implies consciousness, the invariable, essential, ever-present factor. Vedanta dissolves the subject-object split by revealing that though the Self never becomes the world and is always free of it – the belief that the subject (consciousness) and the objects you experience are two different things – is false.
The main purpose of Vedanta is also not to explain the Creation. However, one cannot understand the true nature of reality without examining and understanding the Creation, the forces that run it and how that relates to me as an individual (jiva). Vedanta deconstructs the creation in the light of Self-knowledge, the knowledge of consciousness.