What is the Veda? Do you know that yoga is called a “Vedic science,” or that the Veda is the original source of yogic teaching? If you’ve been practicing the gayatri mantra (the most famous of all yogic mantras), do you know that it is designed to help you connect with your inner guidance? Or that the maha mrityunjaya mantra is usually prescribed to help create health and well-being? Whether you know it or not, you’ve been chanting verses taken directly from the Veda.
The Veda is the oldest surviving book in the library of humankind. It was composed in northwestern India and northeastern Pakistan in vast antiquity. Paging through this ancient text can provide you with direct access to the thoughts and prayers of yoga masters who lived more than five thousand years ago.
The name Veda comes from the Sanskrit root vid, which means “knowledge.” Our English words “wit,” “wisdom,” and “witch” (which originally meant “wise woman”) are connected to this same root. The Veda was composed in an extremely archaic form of Sanskrit that is distantly related to other Indo-European languages ranging from English, French, Italian, and German to Hindi, Bengali, and Nepali. Far away in ancient Ireland, the Druids were speaking a language and performing spiritual practices related to those of the sages who composed the Veda. The ancient Irish word dru-wid literally means “tree of knowledge.” This tree, called the ashvattha in Sanskrit, is described in the Veda. Thus, the Veda may echo wisdom that was at one time cherished by related cultures all the way from the British isles to the Bay of Bengal.
How old is the Veda? According to the Indian tradition, the thousands of prayers in the Veda date back to an era before recorded history. Then sometime around 3200 B.C. they were collected and arranged into four volumes by a sage named Vyasa. The first volume, the Rig Veda, contains 1,028 exquisite poems in praise of divine being and its protective, healing, and enlightening powers. They were composed by legendary meditation masters such as the priest Vashishtha, the warrior Vishvamitra, and the seeress Ambhrini.
The second volume, the Sama Veda, recycles much of this material but transforms the poems into hymns. The third, the Yajur Veda, is a compendium of prayers specifically used by priests during religious rituals. The fourth, the Atharva Veda, is an amazing collection of prayers designed for use by the average person needing help finding a marriage partner, fighting off disease, conceiving children, making ends meet, or cultivating peace of mind.
These are not small books. Each of the four volumes of the Veda is massive. The Veda was considered so sacred that to alter even a single syllable was strictly forbidden, but incredibly, they were not written down till the medieval period. Until then they were memorized word for word and passed down orally from generation to generation by specially trained Indian priests.
In the nineteenth century the famous German scholar Max Müller, who had difficulty believing such a huge text could have been preserved for so many thousands of years, speculated that the Veda had really been composed about 1200 B.C. He made clear that this was just a guess, but generations of Western scholars assumed Müller’s date to be accurate. Thanks to geologic studies in north India, however, we now know that the most important river mentioned in the Veda dried up in 1900 B.C., meaning the text must be four thousand years old at the very least. The dating of astronomical events mentioned in the Veda may even push some hymns back as far as 4500 B.C.
Recently researchers have pointed out that many verses in the Rig Veda appear to preserve the memory of the massive flooding and melting of Himalayan glaciers which occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. While the majority of Western scholars are reluctant to accept such an early date for the composition of these poems, orthodox yoga lineages in India stand by the tradition that the Vedic masters lived in remote times, well before the beginning of the current Kali Yuga (about 3102 B.C.).
What could meditation masters from such a distant past have to say to those of us practicing yoga in the twenty-first century? It turns out their timeless teachings are as relevant today as ever.
“There is one God,” says the Rig Veda, “though men call him by various names.” Many of us Westerners have been raised in religious traditions that claim that our God is the only legitimate one, that the deities other traditions worship are “false.” This attitude, taken to an extreme, has led fundamentalists from a number of faiths to claim they are justified in attacking those who belong to different religions. The Veda stands like a firewall against this scorching intolerance, insisting that no matter what name you give your deity, everyone who prays sincerely is praying to the same divinity. “You can call him Indra, Mithras, Varuna, fire, or the sun,” the Veda tells us, listing numerous deities worshipped in ancient India. “The saints use different words for that which is only one.”
The Veda demonstrates not only reverence for the Creator, but deepest respect for all of nature. One hymn after another extols the world around us and the forces that govern it. The sages offered their veneration to the stars, the dark rain clouds, bright lightning, and the spectacular prismatic beauty of the dawn. The earth itself, vegetation, cattle, and surging rivers are all esteemed, reflecting the sanctity of the divine unity that pervades them. “The supreme one is the fire, is the sun and wind and moon. The supreme one is light and water, the manifest world and transcendent being. Time itself burst forth from that incomprehensible one like a flash of lightning,” the Yajur Veda tells us.
How can we come to know this supreme reality? The ancient masters answer that the divinity worshipped by all cultures, the one who created and pervades all of existence, can be found at the center of our own soul. “God dwells within you with exceeding brightness, incredibly beautiful, glorious, full of strength and power,” the Atharva Veda explains. Then it goes on to hint at how we can directly experience our own soul power. “Seated motionless, the yogi draws his internal energy up his body to the crown of his head, uniting head and heart. The head is an extraordinary treasure. Nourish it with good food, fresh air, and noble thoughts!”
The Veda meets everyone at the level of consciousness they are presently experiencing; it addresses real life concerns and introduces sublime mystical philosophy. There are prayers to cure urinary tract infections; to defend against invading armies; to protect a nursing mother from the sharp new teeth of a growing infant; to consummate a love affair; to bless a marriage; to free one from the animosity of a foe. In one touching hymn the seer describes the soul’s experience in this sometimes dark and frightening world as being like a chariot stuck in a crevice. Many of us no doubt know the feeling! He calls on the divine grace at work in nature to rescue the soul from the ravine of its distress.
The ancient sages prayed, like many of us today, for good health, prosperity, love, longevity, and success in the battles of everyday life. They also prayed for spiritual illumination and the strength and clarity to fill their days with noble actions. In the words of the famous gayatri mantra: “With loving respect we bow to the divine inner sun, the most splendid light in all the worlds. Please illumine our awareness!”
We spiritual seekers today are the newest members of an ancient lineage of meditators, with a heritage that extends back beyond the dawn of history. The sages bequeathed their wisdom and their prayers in the form of the Veda to all future generations, with instructions that their disciples should preserve these hymns for all time. Thanks to the Vedic masters we can continue to benefit from the blessed power of our spiritual ancestors.