Brief Introduction to India's Sacred Oral Tradition
the Hindus … the old questions of whence, why and whither
fascinate and enthral their thoughts from the time of the
Vedic Rishis to the present day. Remarkable as this may sound,
we have really no record of any period of Hindu thought of
which we can say definitely that it was wanting in the highest
and most strenuous thought, from the time of the riddle-hymn
of Dirghatamas and the creation-hymn, to the modern Vedantins
and Paramahamsas of the type of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.'
- Maurice Bloomfield. (1)
immortal and infinite Truth is the all-transcendent Being.
It is the unrelated, unattached substratum of all visible
objects. Human language is fitted to the world of difference
and relativity. The same Impersonal Reality when seen through
time, space and causality is known to us as the all-pervading
Personal God. With regard to the Indian temperament that dwells
on the Impersonal Entity, Max Muller says, 'The transcendent
temperament acquired no doubt a more complete supremacy in
the Indian character than anywhere else.' (2)
Supreme Knowledge Is Older than Her Revealed Sacred Literature
Rig Veda marks the dawn and zenith of eternal wisdom.
It is the root of the Tree of Knowledge. As Max Muller says,
'There is nothing more ancient than the Hymns of the Rigveda.'
The Vedas represent a body of supreme Knowledge, revealed
from time to time in the minds of very pure souls called rishis,
or seers. India's sacred literary treasures verily hint at
an entire body of knowledge more ancient than the sacred scriptures
themselves: the shruti. The word shruta means, 'what
was heard from the immediately preceding teachers'. Shruti
is revealed transcendent Knowledge (apaurusheya), transmitted
orally over a long line of succession from teacher to disciple,
which is traced to Brahman, the Absolute Reality. In other
words, this succession of memory is traced to the Supreme
Being Himself or the eternally existing shabda. The
authority of the shruti is therefore paramount.
universe, consisting of gods and others arises from the Word,'
it has been declared by the Vedas from the earliest days.
(3) 'The Word precedes creation.' (4) 'Vak (the Word)
is coextensive with Brahman.' (5) According to Advaita Vedanta,
Brahman is the material as well as the efficient cause of
the universe. As subsidiary to the efficient cause, the Word
is included in the instrumental cause. As the immediate source
of creation vak is called shabda Brahman or
nada Brahman (literally, 'Sound-Brahman'), which is
also an epithet of the Vedas. (6) Swami Vivekananda says:
proceeded out of the Vedas. … Veda means the sum total of
eternal truths; the Vedic Rishis experienced those truths;
they can be experienced only by seers of the supersensuous.
… Veda is of the nature of Shabda or of idea. It is but the
sum total of ideas. Shabda, according to the old Vedic meaning
of the term, is the subtle idea, which reveals itself by taking
the gross form later on. So owing to the dissolution of the
creation the subtle seeds of the future creation become involved
in the Veda. … All the created objects began to take concrete
shape out of the Shabdas or ideas in the Veda. For in Shabda
or idea, all gross objects have their subtle forms. Creation
had proceeded in the same way in all previous cycles or Kalpas.
This you find in the Sandhya Mantra of the Vedas: 'The Creator
projected the sun, the moon, the earth, the atmosphere, the
heaven, and the upper spheres in the same manner and process
as in previous cycles. …
Shabda-state of every object is its subtle state, and the
things we see, hear, touch or perceive in any manner are the
gross manifestations of entities in the subtle or Shabda state.
Just as we may speak of the effect and its cause. Even when
the whole creation is annihilated, the Shabda, as the consciousness
of the universe or the subtle reality of all concrete things,
exists in Brahman as the cause. At the point of creative manifestation,
this sum total of causal entities vibrates into activity,
as it were, and as being the sonant, material substance of
it all, the eternal, primal sound of 'Om' continues to come
out of itself. And then from the causal totality comes out
first the subtle image or Shabda-form of each particular thing
and then its gross manifestation. Now that causal Shabda,
or word-consciousness, is Brahman, and it is the Veda. …
if all … in the universe were to be destroyed, the idea or
Shabda … would still exist … [and] must be revealed if the
idea of it rises in Brahman, which is perfect in Its creative
determinations. … At the point of creation Brahman becomes
manifest as Shabda (Idea) and then assumes the form of 'Nada'
or 'Om'. (7)
Grammarians, who adored language, accepted an imperishable,
eternal substratum of sound, which was called sphota,
out of which perishable utterances and sounds emanate. The
authority of the shruti is therefore paramount. It is revealed
knowledge and divine in its source. Max Muller says:
we can feel that there is electricity in the air, and that
there will be a storm, we feel, on reading the Upanishads,
that there is philosophy in the Indian mind, and that there
will be thunder and lightning to follow soon. Nay, I should
even go a step further. In order to be able to account for
what seem to us mere sparks of thought, mere guesses at truth,
we are driven to admit a long familiarity with philosophic
problems before the time that gave birth to the Upanishads
which we possess. (8)
The Sublime and Variegated Result of India's Mnemonic and
therefore, may also be thought of as the spiritual and philosophical
result of a powerful, eternal, vivifying force of inspiration
that has immortal vitality. From her vast, composite culture
emerged India's sacred treasures of spiritual thought: the
Upanishads, Buddhistic philosophy, Hindu theism and the bhakti
religious orders, along with India's insight of the sacredness
of all life. Buddhism, Jainism and most forms of Brahmanism
gave great emphasis to this understanding of ahimsa, non-violence,
which was so amply expressed in active charity that it reinvigorated
the withered soul of inhabitants throughout the greater part
other culture has approached the sublime nature and speculations
of Hindu thought. Humanity continues to live in the endless
wake of a huge swell of curiosity on the part of the ancient
Aryans. They were impelled with an irrepressible spiritual
urge to discover that which gives rise to existence and meaning
to life's endeavours. They were equally impelled to disseminate
abroad the truths that were revealed to them in their inner
search. Hindu cultural expansion took place not by conquest
but by assimilation and inclusiveness based on the spirit
of harmony. The evolution of mankind rests upon the response
of India's hoary saints and sages to the eternal call of the
Divine: 'Arise! Awake! Seek the goal and be free.' India has
ever sought to civilize the world by conquering it with spiritual
force. This spiritual outlook of Hinduism is nurtured by 'the
vision of the seers, the vigil of the saints, the speculation
of the philosophers and the imagination of the poets.'
are three most prominent characteristics of India's variegated
culture and social life. First, India is a multiracial,
multilingual and multi-religious country. Despite its
apparent and baffling diversity, Indian culture has organic
unity. The great historian Vincent Smith observed in his Oxford
History of India, 'India beyond all doubt possesses a
deep, underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than
that produced either by geographical isolation or by political
superiority. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities
of blood, colour, language, dress, manners, and sect.' (9)
Clement Webb noticed the overall unity as well. In a tidal
wave-like expression, Webb also noted that universality and
utterly sublime detachment are reconciled in Hinduism:
its traditions of periodically repeated incarnations of the
Deity in the most diverse forms, its ready acceptance of any
and every local divinity or founder of a sect or ascetic devotee
as a manifestation of God, its tolerance of symbols and legends
of all kinds, however repulsive or obscene, by the side of
the most exalted flights of world-renouncing mysticism, it
could perhaps more easily than any other faith develop, without
loss of continuity with its past, into a universal religion
which would see in every creed a form suited to some particular
group or individual, of the universal aspiration after one
Eternal Reality, to whose true being the infinitely various
shapes in which it reveals itself to or conceals itself from
men are all alike indifferent. (10)
it has a tremendous inner vitality that allows it to assimilate
and adjust. Third, it possesses the unimaginable, inherent
power to continue to withstand with renewed vigour innumerable
obstacles that present themselves as India marches onward
to fulfil its destiny. The Indian mind, its aims and aspirations,
its thought and the literature it has produced have been powerfully
influenced by the spiritual wisdom recorded in the Sanskrit
language. For underlying the Sanskrit language is the singular
truth that Sanskrit is more than merely a language: it is
the actual embodiment of Pure Consciousness. Each character,
each mark, is a mark of the spiritually motivating power of
the Divine contained within it. This enables Sanskrit to convey
and impart the ancient spiritual truths to the human intellect
and to awaken that intellect with its pure radiance. Verily,
Sanskrit possesses India's entire philosophy and culture of
Truth. The life and development of the Sanskrit language is
unique and unparalleled in the world. Long before it came
into being, its seeds lay deep in the Aryan soil of India.
Following an era of great spiritual and intellectual ferment
Indian thought began to appear as the six philosophical systems
that are recognized today.
Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy, Max Muller
was this treasure of ancient religious thought which the sages
of the Upanishads inherited from their forefathers, and we
shall now have to see what use they made of it, and how they
discovered at last the true relation between what we call
the Divine or the Infinite, as seen objectively in nature,
and the Divine or the Infinite as perceived subjectively in
the soul of man. We shall then be better able to understand
how they erected on this ancient foundation what was at the
same time the most sublime philosophy and the most satisfying
religion, the Vedanta. (11)
discovery of Indian literature, and more particularly of Indian
religion and philosophy, was likewise the recovery of an old
and the discovery of a new world; and even if we can throw
but a passing glance at the treasures of ancient thought which
are stored up in Sanskrit literature, we feel that the world
to which we belong has grown richer, nay, we feel proud of
the unexpected inheritance in which all of us may share. (12)
Spiritually Motivated Oral Tradition
most remarkable fact that gives us an insight into the profundity
and power of Indian spiritual culture is the foundation of
her literary tradition upon an oral tradition that existed
for over three thousand years prior to the written Sanskrit
works. (13) Before the advent of Buddhism, writing for literary
purposes was virtually unknown in India. Yet, all the valuable
wisdom contained in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the epics,
as well as other Sanskrit works, was transmitted by a special
class of dedicated scholars through the oral tradition. This
great tradition was meticulously maintained by a long line
of teachers and their sincere, adept disciples. The Ramayana
and the Mahabharata, the two Indian epics, were probably
written during the Buddhistic period.
pristine influence of Sanskrit literature reaches into the
present. In 'Human Interest of Sanskrit Literature', a lecture
he delivered at the University of Cambridge, Max Muller said:
us look at the facts. 'Sanskrit literature' is a wide and
vague term. If the Vedas, such as we now have them, were composed
about 1500 BC, and if it is a fact that considerable works
continue to be written in Sanskrit even now, we have before
us a stream of literary activity extending over three thousand
four hundred years. With the exception of China there is nothing
like this in the whole world.
is difficult to give an idea of the enormous extent and variety
of that literature. We are only gradually becoming acquainted
with the untold treasures which still exist in manuscripts,
and with the titles of that still larger number of works which
must have existed formerly, some of them being still quoted
by writers of the last three or four centuries. The Indian
government … ordered a … bibliographic survey of India … where
collections of Sanskrit manuscripts are known to exist. …
Some … catalogues have been published, and we learn from them
that the number of separate works in Sanskrit, of which manuscripts
are still in existence, amounts to about 10,000. This is more,
I believe, than the whole classical literature of Greece and
Italy put together. … The true history of the world must always
be the history of the few; and as we measure the Himalaya
by the height of Mount Everest, we must take the true measure
of India from the poets of the Veda, the sages of the Upanishads,
the founders of the Vedanta and Sankhya philosophies, and
the authors of the oldest law-books. (14)
A History of Indian Philosophy, Dr S N Dasgupta writes
of the unique antiquity of the Vedas, which belong to no age
or author, for the origin of the Vedic Age is lost in obscurity,
enshrouded in the dim, distant past:
the Vedas were composed, there was probably no system of writing
prevalent in India. But such was the scrupulous zeal of the
Brahmins, who got the whole Vedic literature by heart by hearing
it from their preceptors, that it has been transmitted most
faithfully to us through the course of the last three thousand
years or more with little or no interpolations at all. (15)
comments were long ago authenticated by A A MacDonnell in
A History of Sanskrit Literature in 1899: 'The Vedas
are still learnt by heart as they were long before the invasion
of Alexander, and could now be restored from the lips of religious
teachers if every manuscript or printed copy of them were
is not the antiquity of the Vedas but their perennial appeal
and efflorescence in the Indian mind that is important. For
it is really a wonder that this vital tradition has never
been disturbed by foreign invasions, internal political upheavals,
changes in the language, racial admixture and many other impediments
of social, economic and political life.
subtle-most form of Spirit is more substantially real to the
human mind than any material form, more tangible than any
idea. That is what the Vedic sages knew. Contemporary author
and translator Prof Jean Le Mue records his great appreciation
of the immortal Vedic lore:
or durable materials-gold, silver, bronze, onyx, or granite-have
been used by most ancient peoples in an attempt to immortalize
their achievements. Not so, however, with the ancient Aryans.
They turned to what may seem the most volatile and insubstantial
material of all-the spoken word-and, out of this bubble of
air, fashioned a monument which more than thirty, perhaps
forty, centuries later stands untouched by time or the elements.
For the Pyramids have been eroded by the desert wind, the
marble broken by earthquakes, and the gold stolen by robbers,
while the Veda remains, recited daily by an unbroken chain
of generations, travelling like a great wave through the living
substance of the mind. (17)
Rig Veda came into being when all the mantras and hymns composed
by the early Vedic seers, with their unusual power and grace
of expression were gathered together in great collections
or Samhitas, namely, the Rig Veda Samhita, the
Yajur Veda Samhita, the Sama Veda Samhita and
the Atharva Veda Samhita. These are known as the four
The Rigveda, divided into ten books (mandala) having
1,028 hymns (including 11 supplementary hymns) and consisting
of 10,552 stanzas (including 80 supplementary stanzas).
The Yajurveda (Vajasaneyi Samhita, Madhyandina text)
divided into 40 chapters, having 1,975 stanzas and prose-units.
The Samaveda, consisting of 1,875 stanzas - divided
into two main sections (arcika).
The Atharva Veda, divided into 20 books (kandas)
having 730 hymns in 5,987 stanzas and prose-units. (18)
chanting of the Vedas has always been one of carefully reproduced
sound modulations recited in a strictly traditional manner
to maintain the correct meaning. Vedic scholarship relying
on the comprehensive exposition of the fourteenth-century
Indian scholar Sayana reveals much about them.
Rig Veda is essentially the foundation of the other
three Vedas and has been described by the British Vedic scholar
Jeanine Miller as 'a highly important religious and literary
document', as well as 'a work of art and a source of inspiration
and edification'. (19) In Vedic India, Renou wrote
of the sublime Vedic Samhitas, the hymns of the Rig Veda that
are unique in world literature: 'Very many of the hymns are
merely strings of formulae, but some, despite all the constraints
which weigh upon them, show remarkable vigour and originality,
and classical India never attained the intensity of expression
of some of these old poems.' (20)
lesser-known French philosopher M Leon Delbos had the genius
to understand the immortal and universal significance of Vedic
literature, which by virtue of its perennial source of inspiration
to people down the ages made him remark, 'There is no monument
in Greece or Rome more precious than the Rg-Veda.' Professor
A A MacDonnell writes in his History of Sanskrit Literature
that 'Since the Renaissance, there has been no event of such
world-wide significance in the history of culture as the discovery
of Sanskrit literature in the latter part of the eighteenth
century.' The Vedas, the great storehouse of immortal spiritual
wisdom, indeed give us a glimpse of the spiritually oriented
social life of the Vedic civilization. MacDonnell wrote, 'The
completeness of the picture they give of society as well as
of religious thought has no parallel.' Max Muller (1823-1900),
the German philosopher and Sanskritist, translated the entire
Rig Veda. He wrote that the Vedic hymns 'are to us unique
and priceless guides in opening before our eyes tombs of thought
richer than the royal tombs of Egypt. … They have their own
unique place and stand by themselves in the literature of
the world.' (21)
Maurice Bloomfield, The Religion of the Veda (New York:
O P Putnam, 1908), 228-9.
The Collected Works of the Right Hon Max Muller (London: Longmans,
Green, 1899), 13.106.
Shabdat devadikam jagat prabhavati . - Shankara's commentary
on Brahma Sutras, 1.3.28.
Shabdapurvika srishtih. -Ibid.
Yavat brahma vishthitam tavati vak. -Rig Veda, 10.10.114.8.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.496-8 passim.
Max Muller, The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (London:
Longmans, Green, 1899), 5. Max Muller's Introduction to this
work expands on the subject of the Mnemonic Period in India's
Vincent Smith, Oxford History of India (1919), x. Cited
from S Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (London:
George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 14.
Needham, Science, Religion and Reality (1926), 334-5.
Cited from The Hindu View of Life, 48.
Max Muller, Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy
(London: Longmans, Green, 1894), 29.
Abinash Chandra Bose, Hymns from the Vedas (Bombay:
Asia Publishing House, 1966), 1.
Collected Works, 83-4.
S N Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols.
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 1.10.
A A MacDonnell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (New
York: D Appleton, 1900), 8.
Jean Le Mue, Hymns of the Rig Veda (Fremont: Jain Publishing,
2004), 10. Matter reproduced with publisher's permission.
Hymns from the Vedas, 1-2.
Jeanine Miller, The Vedas: Harmony, Meditation and Fulfillment
(London: Rider, 1974), ix.
Louis Renou, Vedic India (1957), 8. Cited from Hymns
from the Vedas, 3.
Six Systems, 34-5.