Q: Yoga is said to be part of the Vedic tradition, but I don’t know what that means. What is the Vedic tradition?
A: The term Vedic tradition refers to the teachings and experiences of various lineages of sages who lived on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times. During the Vedic era there was no organized religion, so people’s way of thinking was not controlled or guided by a set system of beliefs. In that climate of freethinking, people set out to understand themselves, their relationship with others, their relationship with nature, and their relationship with the unseen.
By employing a variety of methods, they discovered different levels of reality pertaining to life here and hereafter. Some found this world so beautiful and fulfilling that they wanted to remain here forever, so they set out to discover the secret of immortality. Others accepted the transitory nature of the world, so they applied themselves to discovering how to make the best use of the gifts offered by creation by learning to enjoy the objects of the world without becoming attached to them. Still others found the world full of strife, frustration, and disappointment, so they focused their energies on finding freedom from this world.
Thus it was that living under the same sky, the many subcultures of the Vedic people explored the world and located their place in it in vastly different ways. All were trying to live a happy and peaceful life. In order to help others, they passed on their vast range of experiences by word of mouth. Successive generations found some of these experiences and discoveries to be so profound, meaningful, and illuminating that they came to be revered as revealed knowledge. The learned members of society made a concerted effort to preserve that wisdom in its purity, taking care to transmit it not only with the same words, but also with the exact intonation and accent used by the sage who had initially discovered it. Such phrases, passages, sentences, and verses came to be known as mantras.
People’s way of thinking was not controlled.
This phase of Indian civilization lasted several thousand years, and in that long span of time the subcontinent was blessed with an abundance of thinkers, philosophers, and adepts whose discoveries were treated as revealed knowledge. At some point, the cumulative knowledge of these great masters became so vast that it was no longer possible for a single individual to acquaint himself with all of it. At this juncture, the great master Vyasa compiled all the mantras and organized them into four different volumes, now known as the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda.
The wisdom contained in these four books—collectively known as the Vedas—is the core of the Vedic tradition. The sages mentioned in the Vedas, and the long line of their students—stretching from that time through the present—who committed themselves to the study and practice of the wisdom delineated therein, belong to the Vedic tradition.
Q: What are the general subjects of the mantras that comprise the Vedas? Why is the system of faith described in them called sanatana dharma?
The content of the Vedas ranges from the mundane to the sublime. In these mantras we find solutions to most of the daily concerns of life, metaphysical discussions regarding the nature and dynamics of transcendental consciousness, and everything that exists in between. Here you find one sage describing the formula for curing snakebite, tuberculosis, and driving away evil spirits. Another describes how to turn the mind inward by observing the stream of thoughts without drowning in emotional turmoil—thus attaining mental stability and seeing the reflection of the soul in the mirror of the mind. You also find mantras in the Vedas that describe a unique way of farming—mantras for planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting that ensure not just a bountiful harvest but also a harvest of the highest quality. These are just a few examples of what is to be found in the Vedas.
The most unique facet of Vedic literature is its declaration that everyone and everything in this world is inherently divine, and that the ignorance of our divine nature is the cause of misery. What is more, the Vedas hold that because the planet is itself a living entity, nothing and no one on Earth is separate from it. Respect for nature is respect for God. Experiencing one’s oneness with nature is experiencing one’s union with God.
Thus, the central subject of the Vedas is the nature of human beings and our place in the vast web of creation. But what is a human being? What is our relationship with the external world—with the visible world as well as with the more subtle realms of existence? As the most intelligent creature on the planet, what responsibilities do we, as humans, have to the rest of creation? These responsibilities are delineated in the Vedas.
The understanding that the external world and all the forces in nature are continuously providing nourishment to us is implicit in the Vedas. Each of us, as a conscious, intelligent being, is responsible for ensuring that nature’s forces are not damaged. Just as water, fire, air, sky, clouds, soil, mountains, rivers, vegetation, animals, and insects all nurture and sustain human life, our actions, in turn, have a tremendous effect on them. In order to act properly, we must understand the nature of this web of life and we must contribute to its continuation—to the eternity of life itself. That is why it is called sanatana dharma. Sanatana means “that which is eternal”; dharma means “virtue, righteousness, moral order, way of life.” Sanatana dharma is the eternal law—live in accordance with natural law so that you receive nurturance from your roots.
Simply put, sanatana dharma refers to the pure wisdom based on the direct experience of the sages. Sanatana dharma tells us: Live in conformity with natural laws. Hear and heed the voice of your heart. Do what is best for you and best for others without killing your conscience.
Q: What is the Vedic view of God?
A: In the Vedic view, God is the source of light and life—that which breathes life into this creation and pulsates in all hearts. God resides in each of us and in all creation. It is the all-pervading force from which this world evolves and into which it dissolves.
This omnipotent, omnipresent force has many names in the Vedas, all of which refer to specific qualities of the divine. For example, Ishvara means one who is capable of doing what it plans to do, one who cannot be manipulated into doing what it does not wish to do, and one who is capable of undoing what has already been done. Another name is Jatavedas, the omniscient being with complete knowledge of everyone and everything that has ever come or will ever come into existence.
Still another name used in the Vedas to denote the divine being is Deva, literally “bright being.” Deva also means that which shines; one who brings light to the world; one who illuminates everything that exists; one who is self-luminous. Because the forces of nature—water, fire, air, space, and light—exhibit the divine qualities of nurturance, illumination, and transformation, they are called devas.
The Vedas do not posit a divine being dwelling above and apart from the world, loving and protecting those who worship him and punishing those who do not. Rather, the God of the Vedas is real and active in the world, and is the self-luminous guiding intelligence resident in all of us. That is the deva—or bright being—in us that enables us to break free of our limiting self-created cocoon and emerge as fully empowered seekers. The God of the Vedas is always with us, within us, and around us. It is that indwelling light that enables us to open our hearts, love all, and exclude none.