Introduction to the Rig Veda

The works of Eastern scripture have captivated the Western mind to a great degree over the last three hundred years. In Europe, philosophers and writers, gatekeepers of culture, have gained a renewed taste for the cosmic, mystical teachings of the East. Recall Hegel and Schopenhauer’s keen interest in newly discovered texts, like the Upanishads. In the United States, yoga has become a commonplace activity, coastal Buddhism has grown over the last 40 years, and Asia has become a destination for many adventurers, in no small part thanks to coffee table novels like Eat, Pray, Love. This fascination has its roots in a resistance to some of the uglier parts of conservative forms of monotheism, but also Western culture has been longing for a greater ecstasy, or spiritual depth. Widespread materialism, in its many forms, does not allow for the pure exaltation of the mind, and neglects the human need for by degrading the much nobler ontological premises of antiquity. Therefore, the study of Eastern classics is of great relevance for the modern mind.

The Rig Veda, which comes to us from a union of the Sanskrit words meaning “verse” and “knowledge,” is the oldest living religious scripture that has experienced continuous life. As when Christianity adopted the ancient Canaanite writings found in the Torah, similarly Hinduism later adopted the Vedas, though the Vedic period occupied by the Aryan immigrants emerging from modern Iran had long been dead. It should be noted that Sanskrit is a synthetic language, a formal and aristocratic language used by the priests. The more common language used was a Vedic blend, or a proto-Indo-European language.

The Rig Veda is composed of 1,017-1,028 hymns, depending on whether one includes a later interpolation. It has since been divided into many different groups or books by revisionists and editors, such as the books or the Mandalas. They were put to tablets and scrolls at some points between 1700-1100 B.C.

Notably, in the Indian scriptures we discover a dualism that spreads to other prominent doctrines, namely the duality of the cosmos that delineates heaven and earth. This dualism is also found in the major monotheistic religions of the world, like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or even Zoroastrianism. It is unclear to what extent this duality is life-affirming or not.

Indra is the chief god who is a hero for slaying Vritra, the god of the drought and a dragon, and also the killer of Vala, brother of Vritra,. Soma is also dedicated to Indra and he rides a white elephant. Indra goes by the name daeva in the Zoroastrian religion.

Agni is the second most important deity presented in the Rig Veda and is the god of the sacred, or sacrificial, fire. He is a divine priest. He assumes the figure of a great bull with horns while he dwells in the sky, or a goose while in the water. He frequently drinks the Soma juice, and is celebrated in approximately 200 hymns. He drives a shining car led by steeds across the sky, as do most of the gods. He is born of the dry wood, or kindling which are his parents. The Maruts are a a collection of storm gods also mentioned in the Rig Veda. Also featured are the Aditya gods or Asura gods, children of the sun god Sura; Mita (a changing deity), Varuna (god of water), Ushas (the dawn); Savitr (solar deity), Vishnu (a later supreme deity of a denomination of Hinduism -a blue god carrying a padma, or lotus flower), Rudra (god of the wind), Pushan (god of marriages roads and cattle), among many others. The pantheon of gods are everywhere alive in the Vedic scriptures.

Introduction to the Upanishads

The word “Upanishad” comes to us from the Sanskrit meaning ‘to sit at the foot of’ -presumably referring to a student or a disciple sitting at the foot of a master, eager to consider his esoteric wisdom. Other translations interpret the Sanskrit to mean “to sit below” or “to sit near.”

The Upanishads are the highest texts of the Vedic scripture, and also they are the most ancient texts of India, and modern scholars seem to search in vain for the origins and authors of these scriptures. As with the Homeric question or the question concerning Biblical authorship, in searching for one single mind from which the Upanishads sprang is a fabled mission, destined to end with modern scholars tilting at windmills.

Classical Hindu schools acknowledge the first 10-12 Upanishads as the Mukhya Upanishads, and they are considered central to the teaching. Each Upanishad is localized to one Brahmana, which then is matched to one of the four Veda. The Upanishads are considered the ‘end’ of each Veda, both as the conclusion and also the teleological purpose. Although impossible to pinpoint, the oldest Upanishads date back to somewhere between the 800-400 B.C. era.

Two concepts are elemental to the ancient Hindu mind: Brahman and Atman. Brahman comes from the Sanskrit word for “all” and appropriately it is the spirit from which all things emanate, the ultimate reality. In Aristotelian terms, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal, and final cause of all things in the cosmos. It is, in vulgar terms, the “highest reality.” Atman is commonly called the soul or self. We might say Brahman is outward truth, and Atman is inward truth. Perhaps as an early root of Greek thought, the Upanishads encourages self knowledge above all else. In addition, it has been said that the Upanishads presents a dualistic cosmos, between Brahman and Atman, however the text is vague on this point as elsewhere it is said that both spirits emanate from the same “oneness”.

The rediscovery of the Upanishads and the Vedas comes to the Western world through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Schelling, and the American Transcendentalist movement. This fascination with vague, contradictory eastern mysticism pervades Western thought up to the present day.

There exist approximately 112 Upanishads. If collected in whole, they would fill a book about the size of the Bible. However, they have always been scattered and never entirely compiled as a cohesive whole. The notion of one distinct and cohesive book that is complete is a fundamentally Western design. However, the Upanishads are part of the four Vedas: the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. The Upanishads constitute the Vedanta, or the concluding portions of the Vedas.