[Advaita-l] Scholarly Article on Why Vedas are Valid

Vidyasankar Sundaresan svidyasankar at hotmail.com
Wed Nov 2 14:02:47 CDT 2011

> Here is my long-delayed response to your post.

The points raised here seem to wander far afield of both (a) the perceived need
to articulate the validity of the veda-s in a contemporary context, and (b) relevance
of the validity of the veda to advaita vedAnta in particular. So, I'm going to try and
keep my responses brief. 
> >We might be talking at cross purposes here. My point is not that there
> >should be no temples for the vedic gods. My point is that we need not
> >have an expectation of temple worship for indra, agni, vAyu, varuNa etc.
> Why is that we should not have such an expectation? I do not think that
> just because yajna is a mode of worship, we should not have such
> expectations.

My general point is that one's expectations need to be based on what one thinks of
"vedic religion" vis-a-vis "purANic Hinduism" and the current practice of Hinduism.
Therefore, all I meant to convey was that if one wants to compare the big temples
dedicated to Siva and vishNu to the lack of temples to indra, agni and vAyu, one 
should have clear ideas of what these various versions of the religion are.
> 1. Can you say that purusha is a major rig vedic god due to purusha sukta?
> 2. Can you really say that Indra and Agni are minor vedic gods?

Neither, and I don't claim either of the above. I don't subscribe to the minor vs.
major distinction among the vedic gods as commonly understood today. But that
is a topic for another completely different discussion, outside of this list perhaps.
> >The popular gods of
> >today have been the popular gods of yesterday and of the day before
> >yesterday too, as far as I can see.
> Here is a counter example - Shirdi Sai baba was not a popular god (as he
> did not exist) 150 years back. Today, he is very popular.

But Shirdi Sai Baba was a recent historical person. In a land that just gave birth
to the world's 7 billionth human being, popularity is easy to come by. Here is a 
simple calculation to consider - every birth, every marriage and every death in
a Hindu household, of whichever caste/sect you want to pick, involves certain
religious rituals. In how many of these is the name of Shirdi Sai Baba invoked?
In how many of these are Siva, vishNu, durgA, gaNapati, lakshmI and sarasvatI 
invoked? Can you really compare the "popular worship" of Shirdi Sai Baba with
the worship down the ages of the gods of Hinduism?
> Even leaving the above example aside, if we talk of the vedic gods, we are
> talking in the scale of thousands of years. So how can we assume that the
> popular gods of today are the same as the popular gods of 1000 BCE (for
> example)?

Whatever date you accept for the yajurveda, the conclusion invariably follows
that a god who deserved more than a hundred names with a namaH after each
one was definitely a popular god of that date. Whatever date you accept for the
Rgveda, the god who measured out the earth, the heavens and everything in 
between in three steps was clearly a popular god of that date. These gods are
still the popular gods of today too. That is the only point I wish to make. All
other historical, sociological, anthropological, psychoanalytic or any other kind
of notion about the numerous gods is a matter of personal opinion, and of these,
there are millions, so there is really nothing to privilege any one opinion over 
the others. 
> Also, I realized that I made a mistake earlier, by equating the "major
> vedic gods" with the "popular gods of the vedic age". It is very much
> possible that the popular gods in the vedic age were not the same as the
> major vedic gods. Perhaps this could be because most of the inhabitants of
> India at that time were not aware of the vedas, with the vedas being
> restricted to only an elite few. If you believe that the pashupathi seal of
> Harappan civilization is the same as Lord Shiva, then Shiva is probably the
> oldest known god to receive worship in India. So there exists a possibility
> that Shiva (and may be also Vishnu) were always popular (though it is also
> possible that they became popular only at a later date). But does it mean
> that they are the major vedic gods? (please see below)

Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Indus Valley, Vedic Aryans, non-Vedic Aryans,
Dravidians, popular public, elite few - none of these is really relevant to a
philosophical statement of the validity of the veda. They are all grist for the
mill of other kinds of scholarship maybe, but may I point out that you are
relying on a false dichotomy of what it means to be popular and what it
means to be elitist? Popular among whom? Elitist with respect to whom?

On the one hand, you want to go by the methodology of counting the number
of hymns addressed to a god, which would make indra THE popular Rgvedic
god. On the other hand, in order to make sense of why indra never got to be
popularly worshipped through the ages like vishNu or Siva, you then want to
confine his popularity to the elite few by saying that the veda itself was limited
to an elite few. If so, vishNu as urukrama and Siva as rudra in the veda were
also limited to the same elite few. It follows that these elite few who supposedly
considered upendra and rudra considered to be minor in the time of the Rgveda
and yajurveda somehow elevated them and downgraded their own major gods
like indra, agni and vAyu over time. Why? Which people in the history of the
ancient world has behaved that way, unless they were conquered by an alien
group of people who forced other gods upon them? 
> >I could point out that the only god
> >who is honored with a long nAmAvalI in the veda is rudra-Siva, whose
> >worship remains widespread today, and that vishNu, who is equated
> >with the yajna, continues to be worshipped today, both in big temples.
> Certainly the status of Vishnu and Shiva increased (in the vedas) from the
> early vedic to the later vedic ages. In Sathapatha brahmana we find that
> Agni is the lowest among the gods and Vishnu is the highest one, with all
> the others in between. However, you are saying the above, only with the
> benefit of hindsight. The fact that Shiva has a namavali and Vishnu is
> equated with yajna does in no way stand apart without the benefit of
> hindsight.
No hindsight involved here at all. In all the texts available, indra or varuNa
are never equated with the yajna the way vishNu is. In all the texts available, 
no long litany of names is addressed to indra or agni or vAyu or varuNa, only
to rudra. And as far as I am concerned, the "early vedic" and "late vedic" 
distinction is completely irrelevant to any view that anyone wants to take
about the validity of the veda as religious scripture or as a pramANa in a
philosophical sense. If one wants to accept the veda as an authority, early vs.
late is of no consequence. If one wants to reject the authority of the veda, a
chronology argument is perhaps the weakest thing one could come up
with, as a reason to reject the veda as a whole.
The brAhmaNa statement about agni and vishNu is a purely factual statement,
as fire is accessible on earth and is in fact generated by human endeavour,
whereas vishNu is a more conceptual presence, not a concrete material reality
on earth. Ultimately, the very name vishNu indicates He who has entered all
there is and is therefore invisibly present everywhere and therefore THE
abstraction of all abstractions. Naturally, all the deva-s are in between. It
makes perfect sense in all time, whether in 2011 or in the Rgvedic age,
whenever that may have been.

> I am sorry but the Aranyaka and brahmana literature is mostly "later vedic
> literature". I doubt if trying to understand the rig veda by using the
> later vedic literature is a correct approach. And for that matter, even the
> upanishads (for example) talk of the knowledge of brahman. It does not mean

Since when did a historical understanding of the Rgveda became crucial to a need
to articulate the validity of the veda for philosophical, religious, ritual and spiritual
purposes in today's world. And since when did the "later vedic literature" become
irrelevant to the "early vedic literature" if one does want to take a historical position
one way or the other? No matter what angle one approaches the Rgveda from, it
is the height of intellectual hubris to reject the "late vedic literature". 
> that brahman was primary to the world view of Rig veda. I think it is
> better to use the rig veda itself to try to understand it. In fact, even in
> tradition, we (followers of sankara) consider upanishads as jnana kanda and
> most of the rig veda samhita as karma kanda. So we are implicitly
> acknowledging the internal differences in the vedic literature.
> Now here is my point of view - I have no problem with counting hymns. What
> is the problem with that? In fact, I think this is the most objective way
> of assessing the relative importance of the gods in the rig veda. The
> difference between rig veda and mahabharata is that the former is not a
> story with characters, where as the latter is a story. In a story, we can
> assess the importance of a character in a more straightforward way, without
> resorting to counting. But in rig veda, such an approach is not possible.
> So I completely endorse the method of counting.

Count away, but factor it with the attitude expressed towards each god and
with what is the relationship between the god and humans.
> >In the Mahabharata, for example, indra is
> >the king of the deva-s, but just read the number of times a kshatriya
> >hero either himself boasts or is praised by others as being the equal
> >of or better than indra. What this indicates is that even as early as
> >the time the epic was written, indra was not so much a god to be
> >put on a pedestal and worshipped, but rather one who was to be
> >emulated by kings, to be jealous of and to be rivalled. And that was
> >indeed the age of great yajna-s like rAjasUya and aSvamedha, with
> >the kings of the epic as their patrons.
> It is well-known that by the epic period, Indra's importance as a god has

It is well-known how? If his importance has already "reduced drastically" from
whatever position he had earlier, why is it that the mahAbhArata abounds with
descriptions of his svarga? I would suggest that you read the epic and its
references to indra without ANY preconceptions and evaluate these independently.
> diminished drastically. A lot of water has flown in the ganga between the
> rig vedic period and the epic period. So I doubt if we can use the above
> information as the basis for judging the importance of Indra (as a god) in
> the rig vedic period. Also, please note that the mahabharata explicitly and
> repeatedly praises vishnu and shiva as the supreme gods. Vishnu, as
> Krishna, is a main character in the epic and even though Shiva is not among
> the main characters, he is always there in the background and he is
> definitely treated as a supreme god. The question is whether the rig veda
> does the same.

A lot of water has flown down the ganga between the epic period and today.
You miss my point. I am not asking you to judge the importance of indra to
the Rgveda based on the mahAbhArata. I am asking you to look at the attitude
towards indra in the epic exhibited by kshatriya heroes as opposed to their
worshipful attitude towards Siva or vishNu. indra is by no means a drastically
diminished god in the epic, in my opinion. He is the father of arjuna, the most
central hero of the bhArata. He is the one who takes away karNa's armor and
ear rings, thereby ensuring arjuna's victory at a crucial point. He is the one
who comes in person at the end, to escort yudhishThira to heaven. He is the
one who artfully manages urvashI's curse, enabling arjuna to use the curse
to disguise himself for a year. His hand, and the hands of vAyu, sUrya and 
other vedic gods are constantly seen in the background, manipulating human
events. So, when a kshatriya in the epic boasts that his might on the battlefield
is such that he can beat even indra, it is not because indra is a "reduced" god.
Rather, it is because the said kshatriya thinks of himself as vastly superior to
other human fighters and thinks himself comparable to indra.

> >The problem is that a minor fraction of people seem to know what
> >anything is, when it comes to the veda!
> May be this is because the vedas, even though they are held in high esteem,
> do not reflect the popular religion? Just a thought.

Here we go again with "popular religion" and "elite few". Yes, the veda has
nothing to say about a Shirdi Sai Baba who lived less than 200 years ago and
is today worshipped by millions. But the veda, unlike other scriptures, does 
NOT prohibit the rise of a Shirdi Sai Baba to such popular status too. And in
temples that are built today, with an idol of Shirdi Sai Baba at the sanctum,
the veda (at least some portion of it) is always recited. Where should one
draw the line between esteem and popularity?

Ultimately, coming back to this list's focus and a perceived contemporary
need to set out the religious and philosophical validity of the veda, how does
any of the above matter? Would it somehow be accepted as more valid if it
did reflect whatever one thinks of as popular religion? Would it be seen as
more valid if it did not exhibit "early" and "late" portions based on a linguistic
analysis? Would it be more valid if its contents were anything other than 
what they are?

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