- By Sadhu Govardhan
When someone recently asked me what the Vedic culture was, I thought of recommending an article or book that summarizes it for someone who has never heard of it. I did a brief online check and what I found was so distorted or abstract that I offered to write something up instead. In my younger years, I have spent two full decades studying Vedic culture and philosophy and although my memory is rusty, the essence of Vedic culture and philosophy is as good as impossible to forget once one has understood it.
One can describe a culture in a few sentences or pages, but to understand a culture requires a deep understanding that goes way beyond a brief descriptive summary. To attempt to describe any culture, what to speak of the greatest ancient culture on earth known to us today, is no easy task. I hope that I can at least convey some essential elements and a basic, theoretical picture. The rest will be filled in by anyone who studies and practices at his or her capacity.
If someone were to ask me to give the most concise summary of the ancient Greek culture, I could give various answers, which could all be interpreted in countless ways. However, the first definition that would come to mind: "A fierce battle between the first Western divinity accepting military city state power and the country's independent, idealistic metaphysical philosophers". It is interesting to note that the three most well known Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, were all strongly opposed to the political system of their time: democracy. Their ideal ruler would have been an intellectually advanced administrator, and not the majority of the masses. Both forces the state, as well as these philosophers based their convictions on principles like honor, discipline, search for knowledge and similarly noble qualities. Yet, one power was rigid, narrow-minded and materialistic, while the other was independent, freethinking and idealistic metaphysically oriented. Both powers left a heritage: the state power left us with famous ruins, and the opposing philosophers with famous thoughts about the essential questions of life: "Who are we? What is the purpose of life and/or the universe? How can we be happy?"
Although my definition above is everything but conventional, it contains all the essential elements the ancient Greek culture is known for today. Most mainstream definitions focus on the fact that the Greek were a principled and disciplined world power that laid out the foundation of modern democracy.
In today's world, the term "culture" has become so distorted and watered down that its original meaning has been lost. In ancient times, "culture" was referred to as "that which was most valuable to society and therefore handed down from generation to generation".
If someone were to ask me to summarize modern U.S. culture, the first terms that would come to mind are: "complete absence of culture". I couldn't describe any culture in the true sense of its meaning, but it would still be easy for me to summarize the defining qualities that describe the foundations of modern American lifestyle: extreme materialism, ruthless exploitation, sophisticated manipulation of the masses, a brutal global war machine, systematic environmental pollution and destruction, modern slavery, financial terrorism and mindless vanity.
Although these two definitions rendered are extremely brief because they focus solely on essentials, they still convey a clear sense of the cultures they are meant to define. Indeed the Vedic culture was the most advanced in history, however, it deserves a more in-depth explanation and expansion on core concepts. Today's motto of course is that "the past was primitive, today's civilization is the most advanced". Modern paradigms clearly oppose the concept that anything in the past could have possibly been "the best", "the most advanced" or as Muhammad Ali would say "the greatest". That's why the term Vedic culture is practically unknown today, at least outside of India, the country that embraced this culture up until several thousand years ago.
There are two sides to understanding any topic: the qualification of understanding and conveying the topic by someone, and the qualification of understanding what was conveyed by an audience. In the West, it is commonly accepted that anyone with a certain IQ can automatically understand the essence of most topics. However, from an Eastern perspective, there are not only many entirely different types of intelligence, topics that involve consciousness or ethics, require advanced internal qualifications. Examples of such qualifications would be: the ability to think freely; absence of prejudice; willingness to open one's mind to unknown and new concepts;
That said, I will focus on the most essential elements of Vedic culture and expand as I feel necessary on various topics.
BASIC VEDIC DEFINITIONS
The term "Vedic" comes from "Veda", which means "knowledge". This term is very appropriate because the entire culture was based on two types of knowledge: material and spiritual. Both types of knowledge were always considered to be revealed and not empirical knowledge.
From a material perspective, the culture was based on the understanding of how to live in a fleeting world of constant change, reoccurring cycles and above all, inevitable death. A human life was seen in context not only with all other human lives, but also the entirety of nature, the planet, the universe, and ultimately all material existence.
Geographically, the Vedic culture once covered what is known today as India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal. Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Its influence extended throughout much of Asia.
The way human society was structured during Vedic times was based on the common understanding that all humans have a predominant qualification that determines their place in society. Society was compared to the human body: in order for a human body to be healthy and function perfectly, it requires a head, arms, a torso and legs. These parts were called "varnas", or occupational duties based on one's physical and psychological nature. The head of society, were "brahmanas" or educators; the arms of society were "kshatriyas" or administrators and protectors; the torso were the "vaishyas" or farmers, artisans and merchants; the legs were "shudras", physical workers or service providers.
The understanding was that all parts are equally important in order for the social body to be healthy and productive. It was equally understood that all parts are interdependent and needed to work together in harmony. Everyone had their duty, but there was no concept of anyone having a "job". One's work was nothing but a natural social duty toward the rest of society, and beyond that, to the world. The system was entirely based on natural inclination, as well as qualification. Society's main concern was to bring out the best of each and every individual by supporting everyone's strengths and inclinations. The worldview was generally holistic, which means that all parts of the bigger picture had to be included in one's understanding of life. All varnas strived for a lifelong internal growth, and the driving force behind this understanding was the spiritual foundation of the culture, called "sanatan-dharma" or the eternal nature of the soul.
To describe and explain the spiritual knowledge that permeated all aspects of Vedic culture is challenging in today's world, because true spirituality has largely been destroyed by Western ideology and we now live in a world of spiritual numbness. The God of Western ideology is materialism or money, even within so called religious circles. Vedic wisdom neither entertained the concept of religions (based on birth place, dogmatic faith or other materialistic concepts) nor atheism (which is mostly a counter culture against religion). Instead, Vedic wisdom focused on explaining the temporary nature of the material existence, the eternal nature of the soul and the cause of all causes. In other words, it was always focused on universal knowledge and truths, and didn't waste time with materialistic concoctions like religion or atheism.
In order to understand one's material as well as spiritual existence, the Vedas emphasized the fact that as eternal souls we travel through bodies (reincarnation), based on our actions (karma). This means that we all shape our destiny by the way we think and act. Western culture, in contrast, only looks at the current life, and takes it completely out of context without having any past or continuous future. Atheism is based on the concepts that there is no eternal soul, that consciousness is a by-product of matter, and that birth and death are the beginning and the end of one's existence. This view is extremely limited and causes more problems than the world can possibly solve. Today's religions, on the other hand, speak of the soul (without understanding the soul even remotely) but ignore the past and entertain the concept of either eternal condemnation or liberation. For them, a soul is created at the time of conception, and then gets one chance throughout one's lifetime, and after that it is either eternal hell or heaven. These two ideas are entirely bereft of logic and reason, but they are still the mainstream "understandings" of life today. It is only logical that these ideas have created a hellish world that is defined by elitism, ignorance, manipulation, dogma, fear, pain and destruction. All of the world achievements today are entirely materialistic, and devoid of noble or dignified qualities. In fact, the concept of internal or spiritual growth for the most part no longer exists. Life has become about making money by any and all means. If you make money, you are a success. If not, you are a failure. In contrast, life was free for everyone during Vedic culture. Today, life is so expensive that an increasing percentage of people can not keep up with the exorbitant cost of modern life anymore.
We are raised to think about how to make money. Conversely in Vedic times, everyone grew up thinking about how to develop noble qualities like non-violence (which caused the entire Vedic civilization to eat non-violently and sustainably obtained food); control over one's senses (which was based on the understanding that the senses are limited and can never be permanently satisfied). We are continually searching for truth (which allows one to fully understand reality and see beyond material reality); to study material and spiritual knowledge (which is a life-long and uplifting process); absence of anger (because of the understanding that it is a wasted, toxic reaction, based on ignorance); this list goes on and on and could fill volumes of books.
All material and spiritual knowledge mentioned were summarized at one point in an incredibly vast body of literature, known as the Vedas. The reason why Vedic knowledge was written down, as opposed to being transmitted orally, was that the brahmins of the time could foresee that people's memory would decrease in this Age, and books would therefore be required. In other words, writing books was not a sign of progress but of degradation of memory. Phrased another way, from Vedic perspective, our consciousness is currently devolving instead of evolving.
Evolved consciousness allows a human to easily understand higher concepts or truths that even the most educated but materialistic people of today can't begin to grasp. By and large our modern academic system has become a slaughterhouse of spiritual intelligence, and it has therefore become a challenge to explain even the most basic Vedic concepts to most people, what to speak of complex Vedic topics.
The ABCs of Vedic culture are very simple and easy to understand, but I have rarely met a person, including highly educated people, who understand even simple laws of nature like karma or reincarnation. Karma cannot be understood without understanding reincarnation and vice versa. Although karma the law of action and reaction is extremely complex. The basic principle behind it is very simple: for everything we do, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Just by understanding this fact, it would become completely nonsensical to attempt to do anything to anyone around us that we don't want to experience ourselves. By the same token of logic, it is compelling to act positively and beneficially because these actions will cause a better presence and future.
Since we, the eternal souls, travel from one body to the next, based on our desires and activities, we also create our own destiny. This means we are fully responsible for everything that is happening to us throughout this and other lifetimes. Just by understanding this simple fact, one can leave the so commonly used blame game behind for good. In today's world it has become the norm to blame others for our suffering, but from a spiritual perspective, it makes absolutely no sense. Anyone who was part of the Vedic culture, had a practically unlimited support system within society that was eager to bring out the best not only in themselves but in everyone. In order to make life practical, prosperous and fulfilling, Vedic culture offered knowledge (in the form of above mentioned Vedas) about literally every single important subject of life.
There are many versions about the time and origin of the Vedas: ancient sacred Sanskrit texts that generally date back to between 2500 and 5000 years ago. Sanskrit is considered to be the oldest and most systematic language in the world. However, linguistic scholars divide it into three types: Vedic Sanskrit (eternal, revealed), classic Sanskrit (spoken by evolved humans in past ages) and prakrita Sanskrit (spoken by common people in previous ages). As alluded to above, the time of the writings is relatively unimportant. What matters most is the content that can only be described as stunning: every single important subject related to material science as well as consciousness is covered in a way that has not lost its validity even after thousands of years. Not only is the essence of these scriptures still valid, it is still the benchmark of knowledge. The texts are described as "apaurusheya" - "not of mundane origin" or "superhuman".
Since the number of Vedic texts is extremely vast, I will give only a brief overview of the most important literatures:
The oldest of all books in the world is considered to be the Rig Veda, one of four "original" Vedas that are known as "samhitas" or "wisdom put together for the purpose of teaching men universal truths". The written form of the Rig Veda dates back to about 5,000 BC thousands of years before the Gilgamesh or the Old Testament. The other three samhitas are Yajur Veda, Atharva Veda and Sama Veda. Each of these texts comprises thousands of hymns, melodiously recited even today. The main subjects of these original four Vedas pertain to understanding the workings and higher realms of our universe; the need for voluntary penance and sacrifice in life; various paths of realizing one's spiritual nature, as well as general wisdom. One particular text that is getting increasing worldwide attention today is the Vastu Shastra, a part of the Brihat Samhita that deals with advanced architecture, village and city planning.
Next are the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, texts that are mostly used by brahmins (brahmanas) for all types of worship or rituals.
The Upanishads (108 major and countless minor) mostly focus on the non-material aspects of the transcendent truth or reality beyond matter. They explain various dimensions of perfection as well as the impersonal and personal nature of the origin of all there is.
The Vedanta Sutras are concise codes (sutras) that are traditionally taught by highly advanced or liberated gurus (spiritual masters). The literal meaning of "vedanta sutra" is "the end of all knowledge". The interpretations of these sutras depend on the schools that the teachers belong to and were trained in. Some lean toward highlighting knowledge, others meditation, and yet others devotion.
The Vedic history is summarized in the Itihasas, also known as Puranas; these texts make up a large percentage of Vedic literature and they give in-depth inside knowledge of the workings of Vedic society throughout different ages. This section of Vedic literature can also be summarized as "history of the planet as well as the universe". The most popular and known epics of these texts are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the longest epic in the world (220,000 lines in 18 epic sections). The most famous chapter of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita ("the song of God"). The book consists of over 700 verses that cover subjects related to understanding the workings of illusory material energies (maya); applying knowledge under the most difficult circumstances of life; reaching perfection by following one's material and spiritual dharma (constitutional or eternal nature). There are countless versions of differing translations and commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita and the book has influenced many Western thinkers, including Hegel, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Humboldt, Huxley, and Emerson.
What is particularly interesting about the Puranas is that they are divided in three basic sections, addressing three different audiences: those in a higher mode of consciousness (sattva guna), those in the mode of passionate action (raja guna) and those who are drawn to destructive actions (tama guna).
Another group of scriptures is the Agamas, texts that describe epistemology, cosmology, several types of yoga (which stems from the root term "yuj" and means "connecting with the Supreme") mantras (elevating sound vibrations), construction of sacred spaces, meditation and similar topics.
The Tantras (tantra literally means "to expand") are another vast body of literature covering topics like astronomy, astrology, cosmology, energy centers (chakras) or energetic powers.
In addition to the core Vedic texts, there are also Upa Vedas, or minor Vedic texts that deal with material knowledge and science. The currently most known text of this group of Vedas in the West is the Ayurveda ("the science of health and longevity"). The knowledge revealed in Ayurveda is so complete that it still surpasses any system of medicine on the planet. Just the nutritional science alone puts any Western knowledge about nutrition to shame. Interestingly, a large section of it is dedicated to the prevention of disease, and in general, Ayurveda always looks at the cause of a disease as well as the physio-psychological make up of a person. In contrast, Western medicine primarily deals with treating symptoms by any and all means. Another famous text in this group is the Artha Shastra, the Vedic science of economics and government.
Similar to the Upa Vedas are the Vedangas, a group of scriptures dealing with material science. Included are subjects like astrology and astronomy (Jyotisha), etymology (Nirukta) or codes of human conduct (Dharma Sutra).
The Vedas served as a blanket of protective knowledge for an entire civilization that lasted for thousands or even tens of thousands of years. Naturally, Vedic society went through many changes over this time period (which ended about 5,000 years ago) and it is therefore impossible to describe the practical application of Vedic knowledge for just a single point in time. According to the Vedas, ages come and go in a cyclic fashion, just as seasons come and go. The current age (Kali Yuga, or the age of endless disagreements and hypocrisy) we live in is considered to be the only dark age of a cycle of four ages: Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. It is to be expected that nothing goes right in Kali Yuga and things will steadily deteriorate. In the same way there is snow in the winter, there is unstoppable vice in Kali Yuga. The leaders elected around the world in this age are not just bad, but most of them are the worst possible. The masses in Kali Yuga are so manipulated and addicted to a (self-) destructive lifestyle that they are not capable of working on their inner growth anymore.
Even the most appalling activities have become the norm and are glorified by those who designed the current system, as well as those who are willing screws of that ugly machine. It is absolutely normal for people to eat meat (which is nothing but murdering defenseless and inoffensive animals); money has become the most sought after commodity of life; trashing and poisoning nature has become a standard global practice; dogmas are worshipped while genuine spirituality is completely ignored; brutal wars and war crimes are glorified as "service to the country", while pacifism is being equated with being unpatriotic or even subversive; agro chemicals pollute all land, air and water; the health care system is based on an industry that has zero interest in healing anyone; people have become accustomed to look up to celebrities and leaders who have absolutely nothing meaningful to contribute to society; and the list of insane but largely accepted norms goes on indefinitely.
It is an understatement to say that spirituality is under constant and systematic attack by a system that is designed to exponentially empower the elite and crush the vast majority of people around the globe. It has become almost impossible for anyone in today's world to work on inner growth and to protect even the slightest spiritual advancement made. I am aware that this brief analysis of modern times is not particularly hope instilling. If there is any way out, then it is certainly made possible by looking at the most outstanding role model the world has ever seen in the form of Vedic wisdom and society.
The social body of Vedic society was known as varnashrama-dharma. Varna refers to the social service everyone rendered based on their natural inclinations. Ashrama refers to the stages everyone has to go through in life: youth (the period of learning and education), adulthood (the time of contributing to society), retirement (described as the time of imparting knowledge and experience to the next generation) and final renunciation (described as preparation for either the next physical destination or liberation from material existence). Dharma refers to a natural obligation or duty toward one's self, the rest of society and the world. Every sphere of life was supported by a vast body of knowledge and qualified people who served as role models in society. In a system based on knowledge, there is very little room for physical force, abuse or exploitation; instead the main force in society always remained knowledge, authenticity and self-evident success or healthy and beneficial prosperity. The simple formula behind the social construct: to be happy and productive materially as well as spiritually.
As far as leadership goes, it was natural for all elderly people to become leaders of sorts. The intellectual class of society, brahmanas, voluntarily refrained from accumulating material wealth and they spent their life with education that benefitted all: humans, animals, plants and nature. The administrative class, kshatriyas, managed and protected the society, based on codes of ethics and justice. Vaishyas:--merchants artisans and farmers provided all the necessities of life for society, and shudras: manual workers who carried the system by their skillful physical work. All four groups fully understood that they were interdependent and that harmony between all would guarantee a healthy social body or society.
A government existed during Vedic times and it was headed up by a rajarshi. Raja means "to rule or administrate" and rishi means "sage". The rajarshi worked closely with the most qualified brahmanas in society, and he saw his role as being the servant of everyone else within the country or region. A rajarshi's role was to ensure everyone was well situated materially and spiritually and consequently happy, productive and prosperous. Although a king was answerable to everyone in society, the one class that could elect or correct a king, were the brahmanas not just because of their knowledge, but because they lived a materially renounced life. In other words, they had the qualification and ability to understand all government workings but they had no ulterior motive whenever they gave advice. They had no personal benefit whenever they contributed to government affairs. Rajarshis were routinely requested to rule for a lifetime, and not just a few years. (By contrast, modern leaders, rule for a limited period of time in which they usually increase the national debt of a country, and at the same time fill their pockets as fast as they can, without having any responsibility for the future of a country). In Vedic society, spiritual wealth was always considered to be more important than material acquisitions. Life was meant to be passed in a dignified way, whether one was a sweeper in the street or a king.
The lifestyle during Vedic times was highly sophisticated but purposefully kept as simple as possible. Technology was known, but always kept to minimum in order to not create artificial dependency and toxic waste. In a sense, the Vedic State consisted of a network of countless, largely autonomous, agrarian-based eco villages and very few larger cities (which in today's world would mostly be called towns).
Interestingly, it was uncommon for a large percentage of society to work for more than just a few hours a day. People were content with what they had, no matter how much or little it was. Success was measured by how happy and healthy society was. The real force or strength to make it all work was a genuinely spiritual understanding of life and death. Each lifetime was considered to be just another opportunity to make internal progress, and the ultimate goal of life was to transcend the material world by fully realizing one's spiritual or eternal self.
Today, this type of society would at best be called "impossibly utopian". However, the evidence of the existence of the Vedic civilization is overwhelming, especially when looking at the countless Vedic texts that describe it in minute detail.
It may be a major dichotomy to compare Vedic civilization and values with today's society, but if anyone searches for universal truths and practical solutions, they are still there in the form of Vedic philosophy and history. We can try to re-invent the wheel, but why not instead glean as much as we can from a dignified and highly advanced civilization that actually worked not just for a decade, a century or a millennium but instead for thousands of years? We may not be able to recreate a Vedic society anymore in this age, but it would still be wise to learn and take inspiration from it. Regardless of our background or talents, we can always strive for ideals and sustainable applications, and we will find that no culture can reveal more to us in this regard than the Vedic culture.
© Sadhu Govardhan, September 2019.