Q: Many yoga teachers, yourself included, refer to the Vedic tradition. I haven’t been able to find a good book on this subject. What is the Vedic tradition?
The phrase “Vedic tradition” refers to the teachings and experiences of various lineages of sages who lived on the Indian subcontinent in ancient times. During the Vedic era, there was no organized religion so no one’s way of thinking was controlled or guided by a set system of beliefs. In that climate of free thinking, people set out to understand themselves, their relationship with others, their relationship with nature, and their relationship with the unseen. Through a variety of means and methods, they discovered different levels of reality pertaining to life here and hereafter. Some found this world so beautiful and fulfilling that they wanted to remain here forever, and so set out to discover the secret of immortality. Others accepted the transitory nature of the world and so applied themselves to discovering how to make the best use of the gifts offered by creation by learning to enjoy the objects of the world without being attached to them. Still others found this world full of strife, frustration, and disappointment, and so focused their energies on finding freevedadom from it.
Through a variety of means and methods, they discovered different levels of reality pertaining to life here and hereafter.
Thus it was that living under the same sky, the many subcultures of the Vedic people explored this world and located their place in it in vastly different ways. All were trying to live a happy and peaceful life, and in order to help others they passed their vast range of experiences on by word of mouth. Successive generations found some of these experiences and discoveries so profound, meaningful, and illuminating that the learned members of society revered them as revealed knowledge. These learned ones made a conscious attempt to preserve that wisdom in its purity by taking care to transmit it not only with the same words, but also the exact intonation and accent used by the sage who had initially discovered it. Such phrases, passages, sentences, and verses have come to be known as mantras.
This phase of Indian civilization lasted several thousand years, and in that long span of time the subcontinent was blessed with an abundance of thinkers, philosophers, and adepts whose discoveries were treated as “revealed knowledge.” At some point, the cumulative knowledge of these great masters had become so vast that it was no longer possible for a single individual to acquaint himself with it all. It was then that the great master Vyasa compiled all the mantras and organized them into four different volumes, now known as the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. The wisdom contained in these four books is at the core of the Vedic tradition. The sages mentioned in these volumes and the long line of their students, stretching from that time through the present, who committed themselves to the study and practice of the wisdom delineated therein, belong to the Vedic tradition.
Q: Can you describe the content of the Vedas in more detail? What are the general subjects of the mantras and why is the system of faith described in them called sanatana dharma?
The content of the Vedas ranges from the mundane to the sublime. In these mantras we find solutions to most of the daily concerns of life, metaphysical discussions regarding the nature and dynamics of transcendental consciousness, and everything that exists in between. Here you find one sage describing the formula for curing snakebite, tuberculosis, and driving away evil spirits. Another describes how to turn the mind inward by observing the stream of thoughts without drowning in emotional turmoil—thus attaining mental stability and seeing the reflection of the soul in the mirror of the mind. You also find mantras in the Vedas that describe a unique way of farming—mantras for planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting that ensure not just a bountiful harvest but a harvest of the highest quality. These are just a few examples of what is to be found in the Vedas.
The most unique facet of Vedic literature is its declaration that everyone and everything in this world is inherently divine, and that the ignorance of our divine nature is the cause of misery. What is more, the Vedas hold that because the planet is itself a living entity, nothing and no one on Earth is separate from it. Respect for nature is respect for God. Experiencing one’s oneness with nature is experiencing one’s union with God.
The most unique facet of Vedic literature is its declaration that everyone and everything in this world is inherently divine.
Thus, the central subject of the Vedas is the nature of human beings and our place in the vast web of creation. But what is a human being? What is our relationship with the external world—with the visible world as well as with the more subtle realms of existence? As the most intelligent creature on the planet, what responsibilities do we, as humans, have to the rest of creation? These responsibilities are thoroughly delineated in the Vedas.
Implicit in the Vedas is the fact that the external world and all the forces in nature are continuously providing nourishment to us. And each of us, as a conscious, intelligent being, is responsible for making sure that nature’s forces are not damaged. Just as water, fire, air, sky, clouds, soil, mountains, rivers, vegetation, animals, and insects all nurture and sustain human life, our actions, in turn, have a tremendous effect on them. In order to act properly, we must understand the nature of this web of life and we must contribute to its continuation—to the eternity of life itself. That’s why it’s called sanatana dharma. Sanatana means “that which is eternal”; dharma means “virtue, righteousness, moral order, way of life.”Sanatana dharma is the eternal law—live in accordance with natural law so that you receive nurturance from your roots.
Q: Isn’t this term sanatana dharma synonymous with Hinduism?
Not really. Hinduism is a collection of customs, dogmas, and superstitions that have coalesced around the sublime teachings of the Vedic sages, while sanatana dharma refers to the pool of wisdom that lies beneath the veil of Hinduism.
Sanatana dharma in this respect refers to the pure wisdom that is based on the direct experience of the sages. Sanatana dharma simply states: Live in conformity with natural laws. Hear and heed the voice of your heart. Do what is best for you and best for others without killing your conscience.
Hinduism, like any other religion, places an emphasis on do’s and don’ts and tries to convince its followers to believe that man-made injunctions passing through the clergy are actually coming from revealed scriptures. Hinduism is a religion; sanatana dharma is a way of life.
Q: I have heard that the Vedas are atheistic—that there is no concept of God in these texts. Is this true?
This is not true. There is a God in the Vedas. In fact, there are many gods, but these Vedic gods are totally different from the gods that are encountered in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and all other “isms.” Here in the Vedas, God is simply that which is the source of light and life, that which breathes life into this creation, that which pulsates in all hearts. God resides in you and resides in all creation. God is the all-pervading force from which this world evolves and into which it dissolves.
This force has many names. They all refer to specific qualities and attributes of God. For example, the name Ishvara means one who is capable of doing what it plans to do, one who cannot be manipulated into doing that which it does not wish to do, and one who is capable of undoing that which has already been done. Such an unrestricted power of will and power of action is called God. Another name is Jataveda, the one who has complete knowledge of everyone and everything that has ever come or will ever come into existence: an omniscient being.
Belief in and worship of the forces of nature in no way implies a lack of belief in God.
Still another word is Deva, which literally means “bright being”; it also means that which shines, one who brings light to this world; one who illuminates everything that exists, one who is self-luminous. Because the forces of nature—water, fire, air, space, and light—exhibit the divine qualities of nurturance, illumination, transformation, and so on, they are called Devas. Belief in and worship of the forces of nature in no way implies a lack of belief in God. Rather it is a way of worshipping the God who is always with us, within us, and around us.
So who is God according to the Vedas? Fire is God, for example, because it gives you light; it gives you warmth and helps you cook your food. Anything and anybody that contributes to the beauty and richness of this vast creation is called God for the sake of practical application.
The Vedas do not posit a divine being living in heaven who loves those who worship him and punishes those who do not. Rather, the God of the Vedas is as real as you and me. That God is the Deva or Bright Being in you that enables you to crack open your little self-created cocoon of limitation and walk out from there. God is that light within you that enables you to open your heart, to love all and exclude none.