"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | January 2005  






       A Brief Introduction to India's Sacred Oral Tradition



          Swami Tathagatananda



     'With the Hindus Е 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)

     Eternal, 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)

     India's Supreme Knowledge Is Older than Her Revealed Sacred Literature


     The 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.

     'The 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:

     Creation proceeded out of the Vedas. Е Veda means the sum total of eternal truths; the Vedic Rishis experienced those truths; they can be experienced only by seers of the supersensuous. Е 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. Е 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. Е

     The 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. Е

     Even if all Е in the universe were to be destroyed, the idea or Shabda Е would still exist Е [and] must be revealed if the idea of it rises in Brahman, which is perfect in Its creative determinations. Е At the point of creation Brahman becomes manifest as Shabda (Idea) and then assumes the form of 'Nada' or 'Om'. (7)

     The 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:

     As 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)

     Hinduism, The Sublime and Variegated Result of India's Mnemonic and Oral Traditions


     Hinduism, 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 of Asia.

     No 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.'

     There 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)

     Professor 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:

     With 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)

     Second, 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.

     In Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy, Max Muller writes:

     It 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)

     The 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)


     India's Spiritually Motivated Oral Tradition

     The 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.

     The 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:

     Let 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.

     It 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 Е ordered a Е bibliographic survey of India Е where collections of Sanskrit manuscripts are known to exist. Е Some Е 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. Е 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)

     In 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:

     When 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)

     Dasugpta's 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 destroyed.' (16)

     It 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.

     The 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:

     Precious 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)


     The Four Vedas


     The 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 Vedas:

     1. 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).

     2. The Yajurveda (Vajasaneyi Samhita, Madhyandina text) divided into 40 chapters, having 1,975 stanzas and prose-units.

     3. The Samaveda, consisting of 1,875 stanzas - divided into two main sections (arcika).

     4. The Atharva Veda, divided into 20 books (kandas) having 730 hymns in 5,987 stanzas and prose-units. (18)

     The 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.

     The 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)

     The 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. Е They have their own unique place and stand by themselves in the literature of the world.' (21)




     1. Maurice Bloomfield, The Religion of the Veda (New York: O P Putnam, 1908), 228-9.
     2. The Collected Works of the Right Hon Max Muller (London: Longmans, Green, 1899), 13.106.
     3. Shabdat devadikam jagat prabhavati . - Shankara's commentary on Brahma Sutras, 1.3.28.
     4. Shabdapurvika srishtih. -Ibid.
     5. Yavat brahma vishthitam tavati vak. -Rig Veda,
     6. Bhagavadgita, 8.13.
     7. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.496-8 passim.
     8. 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 philosophical development.
     9. Vincent Smith, Oxford History of India (1919), x. Cited from S Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 14.
     10. Needham, Science, Religion and Reality (1926), 334-5. Cited from The Hindu View of Life, 48.
     11. Max Muller, Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy (London: Longmans, Green, 1894), 29.
     12. Ibid., 111.
     13. Abinash Chandra Bose, Hymns from the Vedas (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1966), 1.
     14. Collected Works, 83-4.
     15. S N Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 1.10.
     16. A A MacDonnell, A History of Sanskrit Literature (New York: D Appleton, 1900), 8.
     17. Jean Le Mue, Hymns of the Rig Veda (Fremont: Jain Publishing, 2004), 10. Matter reproduced with publisher's permission.
     18. Hymns from the Vedas, 1-2.
     19. Jeanine Miller, The Vedas: Harmony, Meditation and Fulfillment (London: Rider, 1974), ix.
     20. Louis Renou, Vedic India (1957), 8. Cited from Hymns from the Vedas, 3.
     21. Six Systems, 34-5.


International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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