[Advaita-l] 'Vedic History' and 'Worldly History' Part Two

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Fri Mar 12 19:20:37 CST 2010

(This is the second and final Part)

However, this has to be distinguished from the ‘worldly’, ‘loukika’
itihAsa/purANa.  Taking the cases of the composed / authored ones like the
Mahabharata, Ramayana and other puraNas, we have a definite author like
Bhagavan Veda VyAsa, Sage Valmiki, etc.  These ‘stories’ are believed to
have ‘taken place’ in the setting of the TretA yuga or Dvaapara Yuga.

The events recorded in the Veda, however, are different from the above in
that they are not events that occurred at a particular yuga-setting and
authored by a specific person.

We have this one interesting case in the Kathopanishat.  When Nachiketas
asked for the knowledge of the Fire Ritual (in encashment of the second
boon) that would take people to heaven, the AchArya Yama taught him this.  In
appreciation of the disciple’s phenomenally quick grasping and reproducing
the method of the ritual, Yama declares.1.16,17 :

//The MahAtma Yama, being well pleased, said to Nachiketa: I will now give
you another boon: this fire shall be named after you. Take also from me this
many-splendored chain.

17.  He who has performed three times this Nachiketa sacrifice, having been
instructed by the three and also has performed his three duties, overcomes
birth and death. Having known this Fire born of Brahman, omniscient,
luminous and adorable and realized it, he attains supreme peace.//

In the ‘aruNa prashna’ of the Yajur Veda, we find the mention of this
ritual, with the name of Nachiketas, in the expression: ‘नाचिकेतं चिन्वीत’.
If we hold that the two events are sequential/successive in time, then we
end up concluding that the aruNa prashna is a ‘later’ portion of the
Veda.  This
would be against the traditional view that the Veda-s are eternal, never
composed by anyone at any point of time.  Then, how is one to understand the
sequence of the two mantras, the one in the Kathopanishad and the other in
the aruNa prashna?  It is here that we have to abandon the worldly method of
sequencing events and simply take the Vedic pronouncements ‘as they are’.  The
Kathopanishadic ‘event’ of Yama granting the ‘naming’ of the Ritual after
Nachiketas is not to be seen as an event in terms of worldly time.  This is
because, the agni ritual has always been there and the *aruNa prashna* name
‘naachiketa’ has always been there.  Also, the Kathopanishat mantra we saw
above also has always been there.

Here is just one instance where Shankaracharya considers the UpaniShadic
character Nachiketas as a ‘real’, human, character:  In the UpaniShat there
is a mantra 1.1.2 that says this Nachiketas is a ‘kumAra’, a small
boy.   Shankara
comments: तं ह नचिकेतसं कुमारं प्रथमवयसं सन्तं *अप्राप्तजननशक्तिं *बालमेव
....( while still in the prime of life, still not adolescent, still a mere
boy…) By the word *अप्राप्तजननशक्तिम्  *  Shankara means: the boy has not
attained the capacity to procreate.  Now, we see that the Upanishad is
describing Nachiketas as a ‘kumaara’ and Shankara explaining it in these
terms.  It is evident that unless Shankara considers this character
Nachiketas as a ‘real’ person, He would not give out such a down-to-earth
explanation to inform us the physical stature of the boy.  Such examples

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Shankara often goes into an in-depth
psychological analysis of the personalities involved.  The
Janaka-Yajnavalkya conversations offer a rich ground for Shankara to probe
into the working of the minds of Janaka and Yajnavalkya based on a sentence
of the Upanishad.

Thus we have instances of Shankara treating these ‘Vedic historical’ persons
just like any other character of a ‘worldly-historical’ work.

In conclusion, an excerpt [from the Book 'Exalting Elucidations', containing
a series of dialogues where Jagadguru Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Swamigal, the
35th Acharya of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham, gives clarifications on a
variety of topics concerning Sanatana Dharma.  The book is a Publication of
Sri Vidyatirtha Foundation, Chennai. (Rs.50)] is reproduced from the Chapter

//Disciple: We find many stories in the Veda-s.  Are they accounts of
historical events?

Acharyal: No. The stories do not relate to actual worldly incidents. The *
Veda-*s, which are like the breath of the Supreme Being, have no beginning.
As such, they are not the records of the historical events of any age. The
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad for instance, contains a discussion between sage
Yajnavalkya and king Janaka. This is not the retelling of a dialogue between
two individuals who lived in some specific period. An event similar to that
narrated could have occurred at some time but it cannot be said that this is
what has been cited in the *Upanishad*. The stories in the Veda-s are meant
only as an illustration. //

This distinction between ‘Vedic-historical’ and ‘worldly-historical’
personalities and events does not preclude Shankaracharya from considering
the characters as ‘real’ ones, analyzing them and bringing out the relevant
facts from them.  All this is done without vitiating the ‘Vedic history’-
‘worldly history’ divide.  He chooses to freely quote from the innumerable
episodes in the Vedic repository when He writes commentaries and other
works.  It is as though He is quoting from this ‘Vedic History’ Book.  And
that is quite appropriate, as is the way anyone would do with the ‘worldly
History’ book. The Brihadaranyaka mantra cited at the beginning of this
article is the proof of there being ‘historical’ events in the Veda too.  The
other examples are of the Ajaatashatru – Baalaaki episode of the
Br.UpaniShad,  NArada-SanatkumAra dialogue of the Chandogya Upanishad , the
Shounaka-Angiras exchange of the Mundaka Upanishad and so on.  A unique
example is:

In His Brahma Sutra Bhashyam, Shankara has recounted an interesting Vedic
tale.  BAShkali was desirous of knowing Brahman.  So, he approached the
enlightened sage BAdhva and requested: ‘Please teach me about Brahman.’  BAdhva
remained silent.  BAShkali repreated his appeal but again the sage did not
respond.  Being earnest, BAShkali asked for the third time, ‘Please teach me
about Brahman.’ The sage said, ‘I have already taught you but have failed to
comprehend.  This Atma is quiescence.’ (Give BSB ref.)  The source of the
Vedic tale is unknown.

Om Tat Sat

The Article is available as a pdf here:


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