The Traditional Source
Of Vedic Literature
By Stephen Knapp
How were the Vedas established? What were their origins? What is their history? How were they divided, and why does it seem that there are different paths from which to choose within the Vedas?
First of all, there are two ways to answer these questions: one is to consider the theories presented by some of the contemporary scholars and historians in regard to when the Vedas appeared, and the second way is to consider the traditional account as presented in the Vedic literature itself.
Many historians have held the idea that it was the Aryans who invaded India in the second millennium B.C. and were the founders of the Indian culture and Vedic traditions. They said that the Aryans came from somewhere near the southern part of Russia and brought their Vedic rituals and customs with them.
This theory, however, does not hold as much weight as it used to amongst modern historians for various reasons. For example, the culture of the Indus valley, where the Aryans are said to have invaded, flourished between 3500 and 2500 B.C. The two main cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Many finds have come from the archeological excavations from Harappa, which give evidence to suggest that many aspects of later Hinduism were already a part of the early Indus valley culture. Such things have been found as images of yogis sitting in meditation, as well as many figures of a god similar to Lord Shiva. Evidence has also been found to suggest that temple worship played a major role in daily life, which is what the Vedas prescribe as the process for attaining the greatest amount of spiritual advancement for people of that time. Evidence also shows that fire worship played an important role, and fire was a representation of Vishnu. And traditionally constructed fire altars have been found that were made according to the descriptions in the ancient Brahmana texts.
Another point is that the Indus valley enveloped a vast area and the cultural traits of that society continued to survive for a long time, so how could the pre-Aryan language of the Indus valley people, which is not known today, die out without leaving any trace of its existence? Maybe there actually was not any pre-Aryan language. And if not, if this is where the Aryan invaders were supposed to have appeared when they brought their Vedic culture with them, it is to be concluded that there really was not any Aryan invasion, not at least the way some scholars seem to think. It is more likely that the Vedic Aryans were already there.
Furthermore, most scholars agree that the earliest Vedic hymns seem to belong to a pre-1500 B.C. date. Some researchers, however, feel that parts of the Rig-veda date back to several thousand years earlier than 1500 B.C. This means it was not necessarily invaders who had brought Vedic culture with them, since at least the oldest Vedic books, if not most of them, had already been in existence by the time any invaders arrived.
Let us consider another point, using nothing more than our common sense. It is generally accepted that Lord Buddha appeared about 2,500 or more years ago, and we know that Lord Buddha preached against the Vedas. So, the Vedas had to have been existing at that time, otherwise how could he have preached against them? In fact, the reason why he no longer accepted the Vedas was because many of the leading Vedic followers were no longer truly following them but were abusing them. And any student of history knows that abuse of something takes place after there is a flourishing. So, if the deterioration reached such an extreme 2,500 years ago that people embraced Buddha’s teachings, then clearly such gradual degeneration had been going on for many hundreds of years. Since the Vedas were a highly developed form of philosophy, it would indicate that they must have been in existence and quite widespread several thousand years before that. Therefore, we can easily understand how old the Vedas must be.
Furthermore, let us not forget that it was the British Sanskritists and educators in India, during the 1700 and 1800s, who first portrayed Vedic literature and culture as something barbaric, inferior, and recent. They formed estimated dates on when the different Vedic books were written according to such things as the contents of the books and style of writing. But it should be pointed out that even the Vedic tradition describes that after the Vedic knowledge was divided and the different volumes were written, they were handed down to sages who became expert in the content of that portion of Vedic knowledge who then continued to hand it down to others who formed subbranches of it. Thus, it may look like the Vedas gradually evolved as if they had been influenced and changed by many authors over a long period of time, but, actually, that is not necessarily the case.
We also have to remember that for many years the Vedic literature was written on palm leaves and would have to be copied when they wore out or when other copies were wanted. Down through the years, as other copies were repeatedly made, certain conventional modifications of the script would have taken place, making some scholars think their origin was more recent. But in the case of the Bhagavata Purana, the Sanskrit text still contains the archaic form of writing, verifying its antiquity. Nonetheless, the English scholars said the author of the Purana must have purposely used the archaic script to make people think it was older than it was. The fact that the English proposed this sort of theory in an attempt to disqualify its ancient origins simply shows how biased they were against the Vedic literature.
This cultural prejudice was the result of deliberate undermining with the disguised intention of asserting the superiority of their own Christian-based values and outlook, as well as the perpetuation of colonial rule. This intention actually played a prominent role in the reason why they wanted the Sanskrit texts translated into English and to have their Christian scripture translated into Sanskrit. And many of the notable professors at the time had the audacity to consider themselves to be better authorities on their questionable translations of the Vedas than the Indian scholars.
In any case, the attempt to belittle the Vedic literature made only a minor impact. In fact, by translating such texts, many of the notable writers and poets in the West, as mentioned in the previous chapter, were allowed to see what lofty views of the world the Vedic literature held and were indeed very impressed and influenced by them.
So, where did the Vedas come from? Though modern historians may offer their many changing theories about how the Vedas were compiled and where they originated, we can see that this is their attempt to find an oversimplified key to understanding Vedic thought, or to even discredit the value of the Vedas. But they must admit that they are still unsure of their theories and lack detailed evidence for many of their opinions. In fact, most historians today feel that any accurately recorded history only goes back to around 600 B.C., and prior to this period all events and stories related in the scriptures are simply imaginary myths and legends. This reflects an extremely narrow-minded way of looking at things. Many Vedic authorities and self-realized sages in the past have accepted the stories, as found in the Mahabharata and Puranas, to be factual, and have also attained lofty states of consciousness by following the Vedic instructions for spiritual perfection. Therefore, the best way to understand the history of how the Vedas were formed is to simply let the Vedic literature speak for itself.
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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. This appeared from the sky of the heart of the most elevated Lord Brahma. His mind was perfectly calm and fixed in spiritual understanding. It is possible to perceive this subtle vibration when all external hearing is halted. 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. (Bhag.12.6.37-38)
It is from that spiritual sound vibration that arose the omkara [Om] composed of three sounds. These three sounds are A, U, and M. These uphold the three aspects of material existence, the three modes of material nature, the three Vedas, namely Rig, Yajur and Sama, and the three planetary systems of Bhur, Bhuvar and Svar, as well as the three functional platforms of consciousness called waking, sleep and deep sleep. This omkara has unseen potencies and will arise in one’s heart when it is completely purified. It is the representation of the Absolute Truth in all three features, namely as the Supreme Personality, the Paramatma or Supersoul in the heart, and as the impersonal Brahman. Omkara is nonmaterial and imperceptible, and is heard by the Supersoul without the use of material ears or senses. The entire expanse of genuine Vedic sound is an expansion of omkara. It is the direct designation of the self-originating Absolute Truth, and is the internal essence and eternal seed of all Vedic hymns. (Bhag.12.6.39-42)
The spiritually elevated Gosvamis of Vrindavana have explained that in AUM the letter “A” refers to the Supreme Person, Bhagavan Krishna, who is the master of all living entities of the material and spiritual planets and is the source from which everything emanates. The letter “U” indicates the energy of the Supreme, and “M” indicates the innumerable living entities. Therefore, omkara (om or AUM) is the resting place of everything, or, in other words, all potencies are invested within this holy vibration. As further explained in the Caitanya-caritamrita:
“The Vedic sound vibration omkara, the principal word in the Vedic literature, is the basis of all Vedic vibrations. Therefore one should accept omkara as the sound representation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the reservoir of the cosmic manifestation.” (Cc.Adi-lila, 7.128)
Krishna also explains: “I am the father of this universe, the mother, the support and the grandsire. I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable om. I am also the Rig-veda, Sama-veda and the Yajur-veda.” (Bg.9.17)
Further confirmation is found in the Yajur-veda, (Chapter 31, verse 7): “From that Absolute God unto Whom people make every kind of sacrifice, were created the Rig-veda, the Sama-veda. From Him were created the Atharva-veda and also the Yajur-veda.”
These verses indicate that the pure Absolute Truth and the pure spiritual sound vibration are nondifferent and that the Vedas are the expansions of that Absolute Truth. By understanding Vedic knowledge, one can understand the Absolute. Therefore, the end result of all spiritual realizations, based on the authority of the Vedas, is to understand that Supreme Personality.
It is said that originally the pranava or om mantra expanded into the sacred gayatri mantra (om bhur bhuvah svah tat savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dimahi dhiyo yo nah pracodayat). The gayatri was then expanded into the following four central verses of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, called Catuh-sloki which are as follows:
“Prior to this cosmic creation, only I exist, and nothing else, either gross, subtle, or primordial. After creation, only I exist in everything, and after annihilation, only I remain eternally.
“What appears to be truth without Me is certainly My illusory energy, for nothing can exist without Me. It is like a reflection of real light in the shadows, for in the light there are neither shadows nor reflections.
“As the material elements enter the bodies of all living beings and yet remain outside them all, I exist within all material creations and yet am not within them.
“A person interested in transcendental knowledge must therefore always directly and indirectly inquire about it to know the all-pervading truth.” (Bhag.2.9.33-36)
These Catuh-sloki verses were taught by the Supreme Lord Vishnu to Brahma at the time of creation, and all other Vedic literature was expanded from them. The Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) is considered to be the complete expansion of these four verses.
From this we can now begin to see how incorrect the assumption is of some scholars who think the Vedas were written by ordinary men over a length of time which displays the gradual evolutionary changes in man’s religious thinking. The fact of the matter is that the Vedic knowledge was given by the Supreme in order for us to understand this world, who we are, and our relationship with the Absolute Reality and how to work according to that relationship. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavatam: “As the unlimited, unchanging and omnipotent Personality of Godhead dwelling within all living beings, I personally establish the Vedic sound vibration in the form of omkara within all living entities. It is thus perceived subtly, just like a single strand of fiber on a lotus stalk.” (Bhag.11.21.37)
What this means is that since we are all spiritual in nature, our constitutional position is to be full of eternal knowledge and bliss. The purpose of the Vedic literature is to reawaken that knowledge within us. Our spiritual position is of a very subtle nature and we cannot force our entry into the understanding of this knowledge simply by the deliberate manipulation of intelligence or logic. As pointed out earlier, one must practice the Vedic system to get the full results. By this process, one develops the power to perceive that which exists on the spiritual platform. Otherwise, how can one become qualified for understanding the higher principles of spiritual self-realization?
The next few verses clearly indicate that the shabda-brahma exists in the Absolute Truth before creation, during the creation, and after the annihilation of the material worlds. Therefore, the source for all kinds of knowledge stems back to the Vedas.
“Just as a spider brings forth from its heart its web and emits it through its mouth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead manifests Himself as the reverberating primeval vital air, comprising all sacred Vedic meters and full of transcendental pleasure. Thus, the Lord, from the ethereal sky of His heart, creates the great and limitless Vedic sound by the agency of His mind, which conceives of variegated sounds such as the sparsas (Sanskrit consonants). The Vedic sound branches out in thousands of directions, adorned with the different letters expanded from the syllable om: the consonants, vowels, sibilants, and semivowels. The Veda is elaborated by many verbal varieties, expressed in different meters, each having four more syllables than the previous one. Ultimately, the Lord again withdraws His manifestation of Vedic sound within Himself.” (Bhag.11.21.38-40)
Since the Vedas are a manifestation of the Absolute Truth and exist eternally, the Manu-samhita (the first law book for human civilization) explains that all other doctrines or philosophies not based on Vedic knowledge are impermanent. They exist for short times in history while they undergo constant transformations because of mankind’s ever-changing attitudes of likes and dislikes. We can especially see this happening today in many religions where people want changes to be made in the basic precepts. Eventually, all that is left as the years go by is simply a watered down hodgepodge with no potency. Therefore, the Manu-samhita says: “All those traditions (Smriti) and all those despicable systems of philosophy, which are not based on the Veda, produce no reward after death; for they are declared to be founded on darkness. All those doctrines differing from the Veda, which spring up and (soon) perish, are worthless and false, because they are of modern date.” (The Laws of Manu, Chapter 12, verses 95-96)
“Of modern date” means that it is recent, emerging within the last couple of thousand years, or arising from someone’s imagination who gives something completely new or makes up a doctrine that combines a number of different traditions. Thus, it is a philosophy of questionable benefit for the people in general. It is what is called a cheating process, though it may be in the name of religion. It may have some flowery language and basic moralistic principles or wisdom in its scripture, but it is nothing that will give people tangible results on the spiritual level. At best, all you will have is a group of people, whether a small community or several nations, who are temporarily united in their blind faith and who work together for a cause they may consider noble, but which produces no truly beneficial or transcendental outcome.
THE COMPILING OF THE VEDAS
If the Vedas are eternal and were manifest from the Supreme, then how were they first compiled into written form?
This is how it is explained. After the creation of the universal elements, Brahma was born from Lord Vishnu, the incarnation of God who directly manifests the material ingredients. Brahma is the first living entity in the universe and helps engineer the part of the creation which includes all the different forms of humans, vegetation, insects, aquatics, planetary systems, etc.
When Brahma was first generated, he was not sure what this material world was or who he was. There was no one else to enlighten him; so, he thought about it for a long time and tried to search out the cause of his existence but came to no conclusion. This is the same result that people will come to if they try to understand this universe and who they are simply by observing things through their senses. By analyzing the world with the mind and senses, they are bound to make many mistakes in their perception of things. Even with instruments like telescopes or microscopes, mistakes will be there because such machines are simply extensions of the same faulty senses. Therefore, retiring from his searching and mental speculation, Brahma engaged in deep meditation by controlling the mind and concentrating on the Supreme Cause.
By Brahma’s meditation and practice of penance for many years, the Supreme Lord Vishnu became satisfied with him and from within Brahma’s heart there awakened all transcendental knowledge and creative power. From his spiritual realizations, Brahma manifested the gayatri mantra. He also manifested the four primary Vedas. This is confirmed in the Vishnu Purana as well as the Vayu, Linga, Kurma, Padma, Markandaya, and Bhagavata Puranas.
Lord Vishnu taught this Vedic knowledge to Brahma and Brahma in turn taught this knowledge to other great sages who became manifest, including Narada Muni, who also taught it to others. This is where the oral tradition began, and how the Vedic knowledge was spoken from one person to another for thousands of years before it was written and compiled into the original samhitas. The Vedas were taught to the great saints and mystics who had such mental capabilities that they could memorize anything by hearing it once. This should not be considered too unusual because even today there are those who have memorized large amounts of scripture. For thousands of years the Vedas were carefully handed down in this way. This is further elaborated in the Bhagavatam:
“Out of the aforesaid (AUM or om mantra) the almighty Brahma (the creator born from Lord Vishnu) evolved the alphabet, comprising Antahsthas (semi-vowels), Usmas (aspirants), Swaras (vowels), Sparsas (sibilants) and the short, long, and prolated measures of sound. With this alphabet Brahma gave expression through his mouth to the four Vedas along with the om and Vyahritis (mystical names of the three planetary systems, Bhuh, Bhuvah and Svaha) with the intention of pointing out the duties of the four priests (officiating at a sacrifice, namely Adhwaryu, Udgata, Hota, and Brahmana). He then taught them to his (mind born) sons (Marichi and others) who were brahmana sages and expert in reciting the Vedas. The latter in their turn proved to be the promulgators of righteousness and taught the Vedas to their sons (Kasyapa and others). Received from generation to generation in the course of the four yugas by the pupils of the various sages–pupils who observed the vow of (lifelong) celibacy [in order to retain the Vedas in their memory]–the Vedas were later divided by great seers at the end of the Dvapara age, starting with Srila Vyasadeva. Perceiving the men in the age of Kali-yuga to be short-lived, deficient in energy and dull-witted due to the action of time (in the form of unrighteousness prevailing in it) the brahmana seers rearranged the Vedas as directed by the immortal Lord residing in their heart. [Thus, what was an oral tradition was compiled into written form.]
“Then in the twenty-eighth Dvapara-yuga, in this present age of Vaivasvata Manu, the leaders of the universe, starting with Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, requested the Supreme Lord to save the principles of religion. That Supreme Lord, exhibiting a divine spark of a portion of His plenary portion [Vishnu], then appeared in the womb of Satyavati, wife of the sage Parashara Muni. As the son of Parashara, Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, in the same manner that the Vedas had been arranged by Him in former ages, divided the one Veda into four distinct Vedic books, known as the Rig, Atharva, Yajur and Sama Vedas. This Vyasa was the Deity of Lord Narayana, for who else could have composed the Mahabharata?” (Bhag.12.6.48-51)
In the lists of the main avataras of the Lord, the seventeenth incarnation is cited as Srila Vyasadeva, who appeared as the son of Parashara Muni and his wife Satyavati. His mission was to divide the one Veda into various branches and sub-branches so the people who are less intelligent can more easily understand them. (Bhag.1.3.21 & 2.7.36) He then composed the more important Vedic texts, culminating in his own commentary of the Vedic writing in the form of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this way, the one Veda became the four main samhitas, namely the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas. Then came the Brahmana texts, the Vedanta Sutras, the Mahabharata, and then the Puranas, of which Vyasadeva considered the Bhagavata Purana the most important and complete.
It is also explained that the Bhagavata Purana is the literary incarnation of God, which is meant for the ultimate good of all people, and is all-blissful and all-perfect. Sri Vyasadeva offered it to his son after extracting the cream of all Vedic literature. This Bhagavata Purana is as brilliant as the sun, and has arisen just after the departure of Lord Krishna to His own abode. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of this age of Kali can get light from this Purana. (Bhag.1.3.40-43)
To explain further about Srila Vyasadeva, Jiva Gosvami quotes the Vishnu Purana (3.4.2-5) in his Tattva-sandarbha (16.2) that a different empowered jiva soul takes the position of Vyasadeva in each incarnation as a shaktyavesha-avatara. However, in this particular divya-yuga, or cycle of the four ages, Lord Narayana Himself appears as Srila Krishna-Dvaipayana Vyasa to divide the Vedic literature into various branches, and is not simply an empowered living entity.
This is the basic story of how the Vedas appeared and were then divided. However, Srimad-Bhagavatam also explains: “In Satya-yuga, the first millennium, all the Vedic mantras were included in one mantra–pranava (om), the root of all Vedic mantras. In other words, the Atharva-veda alone [some say the Yajur-veda, the point being there was originally only one all-inclusive Veda] alone was the source of all Vedic knowledge. The Supreme Personality of Godhead Narayana (an expansion of Krishna) was the only worshipable Deity; there was no recommendation for worship of the demigods. Fire was one only, and the only order of life in human society was known as hamsa [the swanlike sages who were all spiritually self-realized].” (Bhag.9.14.48)
This indicates that originally there was no need for expanding the Vedic literature because everyone was self-realized. In Satya-yuga, the age of purity and peace, everyone knew the ultimate goal of life and they were not confused about this as people are today. There was only one Veda (which was unwritten until Vyasadeva compiled the Vedic literature at the end of the Dvapara-yuga), one mantra, one process of spiritual self-realization, and one form of worship. But as time passed and unrighteousness began to spread, things changed and there was a need for further elaboration of Vedic knowledge. Other processes of self-realization were also presented to accommodate the various levels of consciousness of the people. Thus, the primary purpose of the Vedas, which was the worship of the Supreme Lord for material liberation, changed and began focusing on the worship of demigods for the attainment of various material rewards through the performance of detailed rituals, as can especially be seen from the verses in the Rig and Sama Vedas.
To explain further, in Satya-yuga, which lasts 1,728,000 years, people live a very long time and the process for self-realization is meditating on Narayana. In the next age, Treta-yuga, which lasts 1,296,000 years, the spiritual tendency of the people declined by twenty-five percent, and the process for self-realization was the performance of ritualistic sacrifice, which the early Vedas fully describe. In the next age, Dvapara-yuga, which lasts 864,000 years, people engaged in opulent temple worship as the prescribed process for spiritual self-realization, but the religious inclination of people again declined by another twenty-five percent. In the present age of Kali-yuga, which lasts 432,000 years and started 5,000 years ago, people are all short-lived and exhibit almost no interest in self-realization or spiritual topics. For this reason, the Vedas were expanded and put into written form so that less intelligent people could more easily understand them. This is confirmed in the Bhagavatam in its description of the different incarnations of God who appear in this world:
“Thereafter, in the seventeenth incarnation of Godhead, Sri Vyasadeva appeared in the womb of Satyavati through Parasara Muni, and he divided the one Veda into several branches and subbranches, seeing that the people in general were less intelligent.” (Bhag.1.3.21)
Here we also find that Vyasadeva was in fact an incarnation of the Supreme who appeared with the purpose of establishing the Vedas in writing. The Vedas had previously been passed down through an oral tradition, but now there was a need for them to be written. How exactly Vyasadeva divided the Vedas is nicely told in Srimad-Bhagavatam in the following story:
“Once upon a time he (Vyasadeva), as the sun rose, took his morning ablution in the waters of the Sarasvati and sat alone to concentrate. The great sage saw anomalies in the duties of the millennium. This happens on the earth in different ages, due to the unseen forces in the course of time. The great sage, who was fully equipped with knowledge, could see, through his transcendental vision, the deterioration of everything material, due to the influence of the age [of Kali]. He could see also that the faithless people in general would be reduced in duration of life and would be impatient due to lack of goodness. Thus he contemplated for the welfare of men in all statuses of life.” (Bhag.1.4.15-18)
Srila Vyasadeva could see that in the future men would be very short-lived, quarrelsome, impatient, easily angered, and their memory would be very inefficient. So, there was now the need to put the Vedic sound vibration into writing. Otherwise, people would never be able to remember it as they had in the past, what to speak of studying and understanding it.
“He (Vyasadeva) saw that the sacrifices mentioned in the Vedas were means by which people’s occupations could be purified. And to simplify the process he divided the one Veda into four, in order to expand them among men. 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.” (Bhag.1.4.19-20)
How the one Veda was divided into four is explained more fully in the following quote from the Vishnu Purana: There was but one Veda (in the oral tradition), the Yajur Veda. The first Veda in four parts consisted of 100,000 stanzas, in which there were ten kinds of sacrificial rituals. Dividing it into four parts, Vyasa instituted the sacrificial rite that is administered by four kinds of priests, in which it is the duty of the Adhvaryu priests to recite the prayers (Yajush, or direct the ceremony); of the Hotri priests to repeat the hymns (Richas); of the Udgatri to chant other hymns (Sama); and of the Brahmana priests to pronounce the formula called Atharva. Then the great Muni, having collected together the hymns called the Richas complied the Rig Veda. With the prayers and directions termed the Yajushas he formed the Yajur Veda. With those called the Sama, he formed the Sama Veda. And with the Atharvas he composed the rules of all the ceremonies suited to kings, and the function of the Brahmana agreeably to practice in the Atharva Veda. This was the original tree of the Vedas, having been divided by him into four principal stems, soon branched out into an extensive forest of knowledge. (Vishnu Purana, Book Three, Chapter Four)
Once these were divided into the four basic samhitas, Vyasadeva called forth four of his disciples and first taught Paila Rishi the Rig Veda, calling it Bahvricha. He taught Vaishampayana Rishi the Yajur mantras, called Nigada. He taught the Sama Veda mantras, called Chandoga-samhita, to Jaimini, and the Atharva Veda to Sumantu. (Bhag.12.6.53 andVishnu Purana, Book Three, Chapter Four)
The Srimad-Bhagavatam continues: “After the Vedas were divided into four divisions, Paila Rishi became the professor of the Rig-veda, Jaimini the professor of the Sama-veda, and Vaisampayana alone became glorified by the Yajur-veda. The Sumantu Muni Angira, who was very devotedly engaged, was entrusted with Atharva-veda. And my (Suta Gosvami’s) father, Romaharsana, was entrusted with historical records [the Puranas]. All these learned scholars, in their turn, rendered their entrusted Vedas unto their many disciples, grand-disciples, and great grand-disciples, and thus the respective branches of the followers of the Vedas came into being. Thus, the great sage Vyasadeva, who is very kind to the ignorant masses, edited the Vedas so they might be assimilated by less intellectual men.” (Bhag.1.4.21-24)
How these were divided and carried forth is further explained in the Vishnu Purana and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam this is explained by Suta Gosvami, while in the Vishnu Purana Parashara explains how the Vedic literature was first divided by his son, Srila Vyasadeva, as follows:
In dividing the four original Veda samhitas, Paila divided his samhita into two parts and taught them to Indrapramiti and Bashkala. Bashkala divided his collection into four more parts and spoke them to his disciples Bodhya, Yajnavalkya, Parashara and Agnimitra. Indrapramiti taught his collection to his son, the learned mystic Mandukeya, whose disciple Devamritra took it and passed the divisions of the Rig Veda to Saubhari and others in successive generations. Then the son of Mandukeya, Shakalya (also called Vedamitra), divided his own collection into five, and gave one subdivision each to Vatsya, Mudgala, Shaliya, Gokhalya and Shishira. The sage Jatukarnya (Sakapurni) was also a disciple of Shakalya. After dividing the samhita he received into three parts, he added a Vedic glossary (Nirukta), which became a fourth part. He taught one of these parts to each of his disciples, who were Balaka, another Paila, Jabala and Viraja (also called Krauncha and Vaitalaki, and the fourth, Niruktakrit, who had the glossary) (Bhag.12.6.54-58 & Vishnu Purana, Book Three, Chapter Four)
The son of Bashkala, Bashkali, brought together three collections of mantras from all the branches of the Rig Veda, called the Valakhilya-samhita, and gave it to his disciples, Valayani, Bhajya and Kashara (also called Kalayani, Gargya and Kathajava). In this way, these various samhitas of the Rig Veda were maintained through the disciplic successions of these saintly brahmanas. It is said that simply by hearing of this distribution of the Vedic hymns one will be freed from all sins. (Bhag.12.6.59-60)
Of the tree of the Yajur-veda, there are 27 branches, which Vaishampayana, the pupil of Vyasa, compiled and taught to as many disciples. The disciples of Vaishampayana became the authorities of the Yajur Veda. They were known as the Charvakas for following strict vows to free their guru from the sin of killing a brahmana. However, one of his disciples, Yajnavalkya, who had been known for his piety, made a demeaning comment about the other disciples, boasting that he could perform a powerful penance. Vaishampayana became angry and told him to leave the place, and give back everything he had learned. Yajnavalkya then spit out the mantras of the Yajur Veda and went away. The other disciples, looking greedily upon these Yajur hymns, are said to have taken forms like partridges and picked them up. That is why these divisions became known as the Taittiriya-samhita, the hymns collected by partridges [tittirah, which is also known as those who read what was said or repeated–Tittiri]. (Bhag.12.6.61-65)
Yajnavalkya then wanted to find new Yajur hymns not known even by his own guru. So he performed intense worship to the sun. Pleased by the worship, the sun-god appeared and took the form of a horse and gave Yajnavalkya the Ayatayama (unstudied) mantras that had been previously unknown to human society. From these countless hundreds of mantras of the Yajur Veda, the powerful sage compiled fifteen new branches of Vedic literature, which became known as Vajasaneyi-samhitah because they were produced from [or with the use of] the hairs of the horse. They were thereafter accepted by the followers of Kanva, Madhyandina and other rishis. Fifteen additional branches sprang from Kanva and other pupils of Yajnavalkya. (Bhag.12.6.66-74) [The Vayu Purana mentions the fifteen teachers of these schools as Kanva, Vaidheya, Shalin, Madhyandina, Sapeyin, Vidagdha, Uddalin, Tamrayani, Vatsya, Galava, Shaisiri, Atavya, Parna, Virana, and Samparayana. These were the founders of what developed into over 101 branches of the Vajasaneyi or White Yajur Veda.]
Jaimini Rishi spoke different parts of the Sama Veda to his son, Sumantu, and to Sumantu’s son, Sutvan. Another disciple of Jaimini, Sukarma (Sumantu’s son according to the Vishnu Purana), divided the tree of the Sama Veda into 1000 samhitas (the Sahasra-samhita). Then Sukarman’s disciples, Hiranyanabha, Paushyanji and Avantya, took charge of the Sama mantras. The five hundred disciples of Paushyanji and Avantya became known as the northern singers of the Sama Veda (later some became known as the eastern singers) and started an equal number of schools. Then Laugakshi, Mangali, Kulya, Kushida and Kukshi, five other disciples of Paushyanji, received one hundred samhitas each. The disciple of Hiranyanabha, Krita, spoke 24 samhitas to as many of his own disciples, who started numerous other branches. The remaining samhitas were given to the sage Avantya. (Bhag.12.6.75-79)
Sumantu Rishi, authorized in the knowledge of the Atharva Veda, taught his samhita to his disciple Kabandha, who taught it to Pathya and Vedadarsha (some say Devadarsha). Vedadarsha had Shauklayani, Brahmabali, Modosha and Pippalayani (or Pippalada) as disciples, while Kumuda, Shunaka (or Shaunaka) and Jajali were disciples of Pathya. All of them learned the Atharva Veda. Shunaka’s disciples, Babhru and Saindhavayana, studied the two divisions of Shunaka’s Atharva Veda, from which sprang the Saindhava and Munjakeshas schools. Saindhavayana’s disciple Savarna, along with the disciples of other great sages, also studied this version of the Atharva Veda. Additional authorities of the Atharva Veda included Nakshatrakalpa, Shantikalpa, Kashyapa, Angirasa and others. (Bhag.12.7.1-4)
As the Vishnu Purana further explains, the principal subjects of difference in the Atharva-veda are the five Kalpas or ceremonials: the Nakshatra Kalpa or rules for worshiping the planets; the Vaitana Kalpa, rules for oblations; the Samhita Kalpa, or rules for sacrificial rituals; the Angirasa Kalpa, or incantations and prayers for the destruction of foes; and the Santi Kalpa, or prayers for averting evil.
When Vyasadeva was dividing the Vedas he had also taken Suta, who was also named Romaharshana Suta, as his pupil in historical and legendary traditions. (Vishnu Purana, Book Three, Chapter Six) This would become the basis of the Puranic literature. This was also the Romaharshana Suta who was killed by Lord Balarama at Naimisaranaya for having been too disrespectful. This was at the time when there was a great assembly of thousands of saints and sages who had gathered for a powerful ritual and to discuss the Puranic literature and the means for giving spiritual welfare to the people in the approaching age of Kali-yuga. Then Romaharshana’s son, Ugrashrava Suta, was installed to oversee the great assembly and who became known as Suta Gosvami who recited the Srimad-Bhagavatam at that famous meeting.
Later, Trayyaruni, Kashyapa, Savarni, Akritavrana, Vaishampayana and Harita (also listed as Sumati, Kashyapa, Savarni, Akritavrana, Samshapayana, Agnivarchas, and Mitraya in the Vishnu Purana) became the six masters of the Puranas. Each of them studied one of the six anthologies of the Puranas under Romaharshana. Suta Gosvami became the disciple of these six authorities and thoroughly learned all their presentations of Puranic wisdom. Romaharshana divided the Puranas into four basic compilations. [Kashyapa, Savarni and Akritavrana composed three fundamental samhitas, and Romaharshana compiled a fourth, called Romaharshanika. The substance of these four compilations is said to be collected into the Vishnu Purana.] The sage Kashyapa and Suta Gosvami, along with Savarni and Akritavrana, a disciple of Rama, learned these four divisions. (Bhag.12.7.5-7) This is why Suta Gosvami was so qualified to recite the edition of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) to the sages at Naimsaranya 5,000 years ago that we all study today.
These Puranas have been divided into 18 major Puranas and 18 secondary Puranas. The major Puranas are listed as: Brahma, Padma, Vishnu, Shiva, Linga, Garuda, Narada, Bhagavata, Agni, Skanda, Bhavishya, Brahma-vaivarta, Markandeya, Vamana, Varaha, Matsya, Kurma, and Brahmananda Puranas. (Bhag.12.7.23-24)
Lord Krishna explains that just as when sticks of kindling wood are vigorously rubbed together to produce heat and then a spark of fire, after which ghee is added so the fire blazes, similarly, He becomes manifest in the sound vibration of the Vedas. (Bhag.11.12.18)
Let me also add that among the Vedic histories the Ramayana was another epic book, written by the sage Valmiki, which related the story of Lord Ramachandra and His wife Sita. This has remained a text of major importance in the Vedic library.
SRILA VYASADEVA WAS STILL DISSATISFIED
“Out of compassion, the great sage thought it was wise that this would enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus, he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for women, laborers, and friends of the twice-born (unqualified brahmanas). O twice-born brahmana, still his mind was not satisfied, although he engaged himself in working for the total welfare of all people. Thus, the sage, being dissatisfied at heart, at once began to reflect, because he knew the essence of religion, and he said within himself: ‘I have, under strict disciplinary vows, unpretentiously worshiped the Vedas, the spiritual master, and the altar of sacrifice. I have also abided by the rulings and have shown the import of disciplic succession through the explanation of the Mahabharata, by which even women, laymen, and others can see the path of religion. I am feeling incomplete, though I myself am fully equipped with everything required by the Vedas. This may be because I did not specifically point out the devotional service of the Lord, which is dear both to perfect beings and to the infallible Lord.’” (Bhag.1.4.25-31)
Even though Vyasadeva had worked for the welfare of all by writing and expanding the Vedic literature, still he felt dissatisfied. This is a great lesson. Naturally, we all desire freedom from the problems that material life causes us, but only by engaging in direct spiritual activities does the spiritual living entity, the soul within these temporary material bodies, begin to feel any real relief or happiness. How to do this by engaging in service or bhakti-yoga to the Supreme Being is what the Vedas are meant to establish, and because this had not yet been prominently presented in the literature Vyasadeva had written, such as the four Vedas, the Upanishads, and Vedanta-sutras, he was still feeling dissatisfied. Now he was trying to understand the cause of his dissatisfaction.
In all the literature compiled by Vyasadeva, there were many descriptions of the temporary universe, prayers to the demigods, the process for attaining material necessities, information about the soul, the Brahman, the Supersoul, and the process of yoga for attaining spiritual realizations. There was also information about the Supreme Lord Bhagavan, Krishna. But the detailed descriptions of God, His form, His incarnations, His names, activities, potencies, and energies, and how He is the source of everything, including the ever-increasing spiritual bliss which we are always seeking, had not yet been fully described.
While questioning his unexpected dissatisfaction, Vyasadeva was at that very moment greeted by the sage Narada Muni, who had just arrived at Vyasadeva’s cottage. Acting as Vyasadeva’s spiritual master, as described in Srimad-Bhagavatam (Canto One, Chapters Five and Six), Narada Muni instructed him in the cause of his problem. He said that Vyasa had not actually broadcast the sublime and spotless glories of the Supreme Personality. Therefore, Narada Muni encouraged Vyasadeva to write and describe the eternal spiritual truths in a more direct manner:
“O Vyasadeva, your vision is completely perfect. Your good fame is spotless. You are firm in vow and satisfied in truthfulness. And thus you can think of the pastimes of the Lord in trance for the liberation of the people in general from all material bondage. The Supreme Lord is unlimited. Only a very expert personality retired from the activities of material happiness, deserves to understand this knowledge of spiritual values. Therefore, those who are not so well situated, due to material attachment, should be shown the way of transcendental realization, by Your Goodness, through descriptions of the transcendental activities of the Supreme Lord. Persons who are actually intelligent and philosophically inclined should endeavor only for that purposeful end which is [spiritual and] not obtainable even by wandering from the topmost planet down to the lowest.
“The Supreme Lord is Himself this cosmos, and still He is aloof from it. From Him only has this cosmic manifestation emanated, in Him it rests, and unto Him it enters after annihilation. Your good self knows all about this. You yourself can know the Supersoul Personality of Godhead because you are present as the plenary portion of the Lord. Although you are birthless, you have appeared on this earth for the well-being of all people. Please, therefore, describe the transcendental pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, more vividly.”
After Narada Muni took leave of Vyasadeva, Vyasa, in his own ashrama, on the bank of the River Sarasvati, sat down to meditate. He fixed his mind, perfectly engaging it by linking it in devotional service (bhakti-yoga) without any tinge of materialism, and thus he saw the Absolute Personality of Godhead along with His external energy, which was under full control. Then the learned Vyasadeva compiled the topmost fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge, the Srimad-Bhagavatam [Bhagavata Purana], which is in relation to the Supreme Truth, as well as being Vyasadeva’s own commentary on all the other Vedic writings.
In this way, the different levels of Vedic literature came into being. This includes the four primary Vedas, namely the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva-vedas, the Upanishads, the Vedanta-sutras, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and finally, as related in the above story, the Bhagavata Purana. Within this literature and their many supplementary books on health, architecture, music, etc., are contained the essential spiritual teachings, the material sciences, and the processes for attaining transcendental realizations.
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