MULTI-FACETED VEDIC HINDUISM
Dr. M.G. Prasad Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering,
Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ 07030
(mprasad@stevens-tech.edu)

Introduction

Life in the universe is a wonderful mystery. Human beings have the privilege of seeking the meaning, experiencing the mystery and realizing the purpose of life. In a triadic approach based on the Vedas, existence of life can be described through God (Ishwara), Universe (Jagat) and an individual soul (Jeeva). Any individual could see the universe as an entity that consists of all beings including other individuals and nature. The GOD as Supreme Being and One Source (Bramhan) is seen as a free and independent entity responsible for Generation, Operation and Dissolution of everything in the universe and all beings. The multi-faceted knowledge emanating from this One Source is referred as Vedas also called Shruti, that are mantras "heard" by rishis in their deepest meditative states and then orally transmitted as mantras to their disciples. The Vedas originating from Supreme Being is infinite and eternal. Vedas deal with topics such as God, soul, life, nature and cosmos etc. Vedas are compared to Breath of the Supreme Being. The infinitely large Vedic literature that includes scriptures (shastras) such as smritis, itihasas, puranas, upavedas, vedangas and upaangas etc. is a collection of compositions by large number of rishis who were seers of Vedic truths. This infinitely large body of knowledge is represented as an inverted tree (also referred in Bhagavadgita 15-1) in figure 1. However, there are different ways of classification including several additional scriptures referred as vidyas, kavyas etc. Thus as in a tree, the multi-faceted manifestations of knowledge in Vedic Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma is emanating from One Source or Supreme Being. Also, in Vishnusahasranama, we have the verse:

Yogo jnanam tatha sankhyam vidya shilpadi karma cha

Vedaa shastraani vijnanam etatt sarvam janardanat

Which means that yoga, all types of knowledge, art, sculptures, rituals, Vedas, Vedic scriptures and science have emanated from Janardana (denoting One Source).

Presented at the symposium on Hinduism in June 2002, organized by Sri Venkateswara Temple, Pittsburgh, PA and also, at the Vedic conference organized by WAVES and University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, in July 2002.

The primary aim of this infinitely large multi-faceted Vedic Hinduism is to provide the vision and guidance to all human beings through four-fold objectives (Purursharthas) for life. The fulfillment of these objectives namely Dharma (knowledge and application of life-principles), Artha (money and means), Kama (rightful desires) and Moksha (spiritual bliss and freedom from all desires) gives the meaning and purpose of life.

The authority and authenticity of multi-faceted Vedic-Hinduism is due to innumerable rishis (seers) who have showed the paths of reaching that One Source of Light and Bliss. In the words of a seer-yogi Sriranga Sadguru, "It is view of the rishis of Bharata that spiritual enlightenment is the ultimate goal of life. That is attainment of ultimate joy (Ananda). That is liberation (Mukti). Spiritual knowledge (Jnana) is that by which one merges into the light of Atman as river merges into the ocean. The rishis or jnanis having attained this ultimate goal have brought forth the knowledge in science and arts (Vijnana) keeping in line with their roots in spiritual knowledge (Jnana) because vijnana is the manifestation of Jnana. It is for this reason an in-depth sincere study of knowledge in science and arts at any stage of manifestation will lead to attainment of the ultimate goal of spiritual knowledge (Jnana)"

This paper is an attempt to show in brief this all-encompassing nature of Vedic Hinduism. The various topics such as deities, rituals and temples indicate that these are important means to internalize the deeper concepts and principles of yoga and spirituality. An understanding of deities such as Goddess Saraswati and Lord Nataraja helps the seeker to focus and internalize through rituals and worship. The various deities in Vedic Hinduism are yogic visions. A vigraha or a picture becomes a connecting medium between a devotee and God. A temple is a representation of a human body and the God consecrated in the temple as vigraha represents the Indweller in human beings and all other beings and universe.

The Vedic seers have shown that one can advance spiritually and achieve bliss through dance and music and also provide joy to the mind and senses. The yoga through body and mind connects dance and music to the spiritual experiences. Vedic seers have recognized the relationship of spiritual and scientific principles. Examples such as Conch shells, musical instruments, bells, natural elements, etc are used as mediums to connect the seeker to the spiritual goals.

Then there are scriptures that deal with the philosophical systems that help seekers through advanced intellectual means of reasoning and analysis. Synthesis of knowledge, devotion and actions is emphasized in spiritual practices. Vedic seers emphasized that ultimately it is the inner experience and realization that brings the spiritual bliss and peace to the individual. This process of inner realization in multi-faceted Vedic Hinduism can be expressed through the concurrence of the experiences of the triad of Sadguru, Shastras and Sadhaka.

Multi-faceted Vedic Hinduism and Inverted Tree

The Vedas and Vedic literature deal with all aspects of knowledge on Supreme Being, various Gods, life, arts, nature, society and Cosmos etc through principles and applications. A brief description of the inverted tree as referred in figure 1 is given below: Maharishi VedaVyasa classified the Vedas or Shruti emanating from Supreme Being into the main four Vedas namely Rigveda (metrical mantras on various Gods), YajurVeda (prose-type mantras for rituals and yajnas), Samaveda (musical and metrical chants) and AtharvaVeda (mantras on society and welfare) through rishis Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu respectively.

The Smritis include compositions of the codes and guidelines recommended by rishis such as Parashara, Yajnavalkya, Goutama, Manu etc. for the success and spiritual development in life.

The Itithasas are the historical literature that includes Ramayana of Valmiki and Mahabharata of Vyasa. The Ramayana and Mahabharata are referred as fifth Vedas as they explain the Vedic principles that are difficult to understand directly in simple and illustrative ways. Especially, Ramayana is ideally suited as a reference guide for human beings. The Puranas is literature of instructive and imaginative stories based on the historical literature to explain the Vedic principles.

The UpaVedas consist of Ayurveda for heath and medicine, Dhanurveda for the science of archery and military, GandharvaVeda for the arts and Arthaveda for science of economics and business. The Vedangas are auxiliary to Vedas and they play an important role in understanding and practice of Vedic knowledge and rituals. Shiksha deals with science of proper articulation, euphony and pronunciation of mantras. The Kalpa deals with Vedic rituals and procedures. Vyakarana deals the grammatical aspects of Vedic language. Nirukta is the etymological explanation of Vedic words. Chandas is the science of prosody and aids in melodious pronunciation of the Vedic mantras. Jyotisha is the astronomical and astrological part for applications in Vedic rituals.

The Upangas are the philosophical systems referred as Darshana and are based on the Vedas. They were formulated by rishis in the form of sutras (cryptic statements). Nyaya of Gautama deals with science of logic and metaphysics. Vaisheshika of Kanaada provides a scientific view of the universe. Sankhya of Kapila describes the universe and life through priniciples. Yoga of Patanjali describes eight steps for psycho-physical and spiritual fulfillment. PurvaMimamsa of Jaimini describes the role and relevance of Vedic rituals. UttaraMimamsa also known as Vedanta of Vyasa with the basis on Upanishats deal with the understanding and realization of Bramhan as One Source.

The Prasthanatrayi refers to three sources that form the foundations of Vedic Hindu philosophy. They are Vedanta sutras of Vyasa, Upanishats of the Vedas that emphasize knowledge, and the well-known Bhagavadgita of Vyasa. These three sources are very well known in the world literature on philosophy. The universal and eternal nature of these three sources is evident from the innumerable commentaries on them by many acharyas at different times. The three major systems are Advaita, Vishishtaadvaita of Dvaita are used to seek, understand and realize the relationship between individual, universe and God. The acharyas such as Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva who have written commentaries on these foundation scriptures have also shown through their lives the need of integrating (yoga) the practical aspects of devotion (bhakti), knowledge (jnana) and actions (karma) .

Figure 1: An Inverted tree representation

Gods, Rituals and Temples

Vedic Hinduism can be seen through its manifestations such as rituals, sculptures, temples, dance, music, mantras, yoga including meditation, science and philosophical systems. The Vedic rituals and religious practices are based on the spiritual core. This transfer of tradition from generation to generation forms an important aspect of Vedic Hinduism. The various rituals (samskaras) are carried out at various stages of life of a Hindu to awaken, strengthen, nourish and refine the mind so that it can advance towards the spiritual knowledge. These rituals include first feeding of food, beginning of learning, wedding, pregnancy etc. In addition to these rituals, the temples and festivals play an important role in sustaining and transferring the Vedic tradition and culture.

A Hindu temple is a divine and yogic representation (figure 2) of a human being with the Deity in the temple representing the God as indweller in humans and all beings. In a temple the feet represents rajagopura, the hands represent praakaara, the abdomen represent mandapa, the heart represents antaraala and the crown of the head represents the sanctum sanctorum (garbha griha). The temple is used as a reminder that our inner spiritual journey is through internal yoga to realize the indweller God. This analogy is shown in figure 2 through the representation of various chakras namely Moolaadhara to Sahasraara in the body to various locations in the temple.

Figure 2: Representation of a Hindu temple (ref 3)

The rituals in a pooja such as invoking god into a vigraha, giving sacred bath to with chanting, decoration, offering food and waving lamp to the vigraha helps the seekers to internalize the spiritual energy. Also, the seekers can make connections though five senses to focus their mind on God. A Vedic Hindu festival is significant in several ways namely, spiritual, philosophical, religious and socio-cultural. Celebrations of various festivals have sustained the dynamic nature of Vedic Hindu values and culture.

The icons or vigrahas of Gods and Goddesses also help the seekers to focus on the concepts. These icons are not imaginations but they are manifestations of the Supreme Being in the inner yogic visions of the seers. Thus the icons depict the divine forces in a visible form. The Goddess Saraswati shown in figure 3 is the Goddess of speech, music and knowledge. She is seated on a lotus denoting the heart. In Her right hand, the rosary (akshamala) represents the alphabets of a language (Sanskrit). The musical instrument (Veena) represents the spinal cord important in physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of life. The book in Her left hand denotes the knowledge. The swan as Her vehicle represents the devotee. The peacock signifies the joy of knowledge. She is clad in white cloths to indicate the purity in pursuit of knowledge. Thus we can see that deity worship is an important means to internalize and develop the spiritual insight.

Figure 3: Goddess Saraswati

Dance, Music and Science

The Vedic Hinduism asserts that all changing manifestations are referred to the Supreme Unchanging God as Source and Substratum. These continuous changes are describes as a dance. The Lord Shiva as King of Dancers (Lord Nataraja) shown in figure 4 illustrates this principle.

Figure 4: Lord Nataraja as a Divine dancer (refs 1,2)

The divine dance posture of Lord Nataraja depicts spiritual bliss obtained by the state of balance achieved through the process of yoga. The drum and the fire in His right and left hands signify the vital forces namely, prana and apana respectively. The union of prana and apana is the goal of yoga. The snake signifies the yogic energy as Kundalini. The blessing of fearlessness to a devotee is indicated by His two hands in the middle. The dwarf-demon being crushed is called as Apasmara representing forgetfulness of oneís innate divinity. The Vedic literature says that, it is this ignorance makes humans unconscious of the indwelling divinity. The actions based on this ignorance are the cause of misery and suffering. The darkness created by Apasmara has to be dispelled by the divine dance of Lord Nataraja, which brings spiritual enlightenment. A composition by a seer-yogi Swami Sriranga Priya says :

Om namo Natarajaya shudddha jnana svaroopine Bhaktanam hridaye nityam divyam nrityam prakurvate Which means, "Salutations to the Lord Nataraja, Whose form is pure spiritual knowledge. His divine-dance is performed all the time in the heart-altar of all devotees". The divine dance of Lord Nataraja also signifies the yogic process. The importance of various chakras in spiritual path is well known. In figure 5, the production of various seed-sounds in relation to various chakras starting from Mooladhara at the base are shown. The Vedic representation of the human spinal cord as the musical instrument (Veena) is shown in figure 6. The 24 frets of the instrument are analogous to the 24 cartilages in the spinal cord. The number 24 also relates to the 24 syllables in the Vedic Gayatri mantra. Thus the inter-relation (figures 2, 3, 5 and 6) between a temple, Goddess Saraswati holding Veena, The production of seed-sounds at the various chakras in the spinal cord and representation of Veena as spinal cord shows the multi-faceted manifestations of Vedic principles and experiences. Figure 5: Lord Nataraja and speech-sounds (refs 1, 2)
 
 
 
 

Figure 6: Veena and human spinal cord representation (ref 1)

The rishis and yogis experienced the various manifestations of the Supreme Being not only within themselves but also in the nature and cosmos. Another illustration is the discovery of a natural instrument namely, conch-shell used for rituals and spiritual practices. Figure 7 shows the interior of a conch-shell and its spectral characteristics of the sound.

Figure 7: Spectral characteristics of Sankha (conch-shell) (ref 9)

The interesting feature is the sharpness of the tone, which is even difficult to obtain in a human-made instrument. The superior sound quality of the tone from a proper conch-shell represents the spiritual vibrations of the universal sound of OM. The Garbhopanishat says that an infant in the womb, in its eighth month hears the sound of OM and has the spiritual vision of Light of God. It is for this reason, the Vedic literature says that God is in every being and it is the rediscovery of that vision and knowledge that is needed for spiritual enlightenment.

It is well known that Indian classical music has Vedic origin. The acoustical characteristics such as melodious sound, phonetic quality of letters, proper breaking of words, correct intonation, majesty and proper speed of Vedic chants are precisely transmitted through oral tradition from teacher to disciple. Svaras are common to Vedic chants, music and language. The seven svaras of music are acoustically related to svaras in Vedic chants. It is interesting to note that Vedic chants are effectively played on musical instrument Veena. The Shabda Bramhan encompasses the full range of vibrations such as infra, audio, ultra and electro-magnetic waves. The Amrita Bindu Upanishat refers to two Bramhans namely ParamBramhan and ShabdaBramhan.

Great saints such as Purandaradasa, Tyagaraja etc. have demonstrated that the divine music is a means of spiritual realization. The classical Music in the Vedic Hinduism belongs to the path of yoga namely, Nada Yoga. The treatise of classical music Sangita Ratnakara describes Nada as the union of prana and anala which represents the drum and fire respectively in the hands of Lord Nataraja (figure 4). The acoustical knowledge of ancient Hindus manifested in several musical instruments. One distinguishing feature of Mridangam and Tabla is interesting. The sounds of a percussion instrument provides the rhythm and not melody. However, the Mridangam and Tabla due to their design produce several harmonic tones, which brings melody to their sounds (figure 8). This brings a pleasing quality to rhythmic sounds. It is for this reason the classical music and dance emanating from Vedic origin not only is a spiritual path but also provides joy to mind and senses.

Figure 9 shows an interesting scientific experiment referred as Tyndall effect wherein an acoustical tone, when directed on a flame breaks the flame into seven-tongue. In Vishnusahasranama, the seven-tongued fire is referred as a name. This phenomenon of effect of sound or vibrations on flame plays an important role in Vedic yajnas. The sacred fire represents the god or goddess worshipped in a yajna. Thus one can see that the Vedic literature encompasses universal phenomena in nature and cosmos. The Vedic rishis have the abilities of spiritual and scientific insight along with saintly qualities. It is the pursuit of truth objectively by rishis that brought multi-faceted nature to Vedic Hinduism and has made it relevant and useful for all seekers in the past, present and future.

Figure 8: Harmonic tones of Tabla (ref 8)

Figure 9: Effect of sound on flame (Tyndall effect)

Vedanta, Yoga and Meditation

It is well known that Vedanta, yoga and meditation have become very popular around the world. However, it is to be noted that they have their source in the eternal Vedas and Vedic Hindu literature. Vedanta refers to not only ending portions of the Vedas but also the essence of the Vedas that emphasize the spiritual knowledge (Jnana). Vedanta deals with the relationship between the God, universe and individual soul. Although there are several Vedantic approaches such as Advaita, Vishishtaadviata, Dvaita etc., they all refer to the Vedas as the transcendental authority and Bramhan as the Independent and Ultimate Truth (Bramha Satyam). Important qualities such as devotion, compassion, forgiveness etc are emphasized for spiritual development. The need for an acharya or guru is essential in understanding and practice of scriptural guidelines. The important role of karma has to be understood. Thus Vedanta through the Prasthanatrayi, namely Upanishats, Bramhasutras and Bhagavadgita has become the universal and eternal philosophical foundations of Vedic Hinduism. The Bhagavadgita is a shastra (scripture) for both Bramhavidya and Yoga.

It is important to note that yoga and meditation have their roots in Vedas and Vedic literature. Vedanta and yoga are the theoretical and practical aspects in the pursuit of realization of Bramhan. The sole purpose of yoga is the realization of original and normal state. Yoga is not merely restricted to poses and acrobatic postures with impressive demonstrations. The Katha upanishat, Bhagavadgita and Patanjaliís yogasutras are some of the important major references on yoga. It is to be noted that the Ashtanga Yoga of Vedic Hinduism is a systematic approach to reach the spiritual goal of original and normal state of bliss. Ashtanga yoga means eight-limbs of the yoga. Meditation is the seventh step in this approach. The eight-fold Ashtanga yoga briefly consists of Yama (self-control) and Niyama (disciplines) dealing with practices related to physical and mental disciplines. Asana deals with the practice of physical postures integrating the flexibility of the body and breathing patterns. Pranayama deals with the control and regulation of Prana or vital forces. Pratyahara deals with the practice of withdrawing the consciousness from the multiplicity of thoughts and directing it toward the inner-self. Dharana deals with the development of the ability of the mind to focus and contain a sacred object. Dhyana is the meditation or continuous concentration on the sacred object. The nature and quality of the object of meditation is extremely important. The continuous concentration is compared to that of an unbroken flow of oil and non-flickering flame of a lamp. These seven steps lead the seeker to Samadhi referring to the level of original and normal state and super-consciousness. The order mentioned in this Ashtanga yoga is important. A yogi who has realized and is established in this original and normal state is able to provide genuine guidance as a sadguru or acharya to the sincere and devoted seeker. Ashtanga yoga through its scientific and practical approach deals with all aspects of human development such as physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development. In the words of a seer-yogi Sriranga Sadguru, " The customs and habits, the dress and ornaments, the manners and etiquette, the conceptions of right and wrong and of good and evil, the learning, literature and the various arts like music, the political thoughts, views regarding all action and the consecratory ceremonies, etc., of the Indians (Bharatiyas) are all permeated like the warp and woof by Ashtanga Yoga."

Vedic triadic approach

In figure 10 a simple Vedic triadic approach is shown to describe any effort to seek knowledge and particularly spiritual knowledge. The three lines represent the three essential components required for spiritual seeking are Sadguru, Shastra and Anubhava. The Sadguru refers to the guiding energy in the form of mother, father, acharya, spiritual mentor, etc., who helps and directs the individual to gain knowledge and discriminate between right and wrong. It is a life-force of subjective importance. The Shastras refers to the body of knowledge (Vedic literature), which has sustained the test of time and space. The shastras include infinite large collection of sources as shown in figure 1. Shastras represents the perennial objective source that includes rituals to vedanta. The shastras include resources for all levels of enquiry. The following of rituals provides required refinement for the mind. The historical masterpieces such as Ramayana and Mahabharata illustrate the Vedic principles applicable to human beings. The vedantic literature such as Advaita, Vishishtaadvaita and Dvaita etc provide the Vedic truths at the fundamental levels. Then there are shastras for arts, music, science, medicine etc. The third important component Anubhava means the experience of the seeker. In the course of time, the three lines should advance towards concurrence, which is indicated by the reduction of the triangle size. The concurrence assures that the seekerís experience is concurring with those of Sadguru and Shastra. The non-concurrence indicates disparity between the three components and need to be worked at. It is a dynamic process to be carried out by the seeker.

Figure 10: A Vedic triadic approach
 
 

Concluding remarks

Vedic Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) with its source in the eternal Vedas has sustained and guided its followers in the long history of time. Innumerable number of rishis and yogis have provided guidance and direction through their scientific, saintly and introspective abilities.

It is our common experience that our present times have provided many comforts due to growth of technology, global communications, consumerism etc. In spite of all these global developments, the critical issues of life and particularly human life such as hunger, poverty, hatred, threat of nuclear war etc. still pose major challenges. These basic human problems need to be addressed at all levels including the development of an individual with the global consciousness. The multi-faceted Vedic Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma has the ability to sustain the timeline through past, present, future and beyond.

References

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  2. Divine dancer by S.V. Chamu, published by Ashtanga Yoga Vijnana Mandiram, India.(1982)
  3. Agama-Kosha (Volume 6:Alaya and Aradhana), S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Kalpataru Research Academy, P.O.Box 1857, Bangalore, India (1992)
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  7. Inner Workings during Yoga Practice by T.V. Ananthapadmanabha, Anugraha publishers, Bangalore, India. (1999)
  8. Vibrations of Indian Musical Drums regarded as Composite Membranes by B.S. Ramakrishna and M.M. Sondhi, in Journal of The Acoustical Society of America, Volume 26, p523, (1954).
  9. Geometrical Modeling and Spectral Characteristics of a Conch-Shell Trumpet, by Lisa Taylor, M.G. Prasad and R. Bhat, Third International Conference on Acoustics and Vibration, Montreal, Canada (1994).
  10. A Data Driven Algorithm for a Natural Language by K.L.Kanthan, presented at the WAVES conference, Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey. (2000).
Dr. M.G. Prasad is a spiritual disciple of seer-yogi Sriranga Sadguru, the founder of Ashtanga yoga Vijnana Mandiram, Mysore, India. Prasad is chairperson of the education committee of the Hindu temple and community center, Bridgewater, New Jersey. He lectures and writes on Vedic Hinduism. He is an outreach associate for the television program Religion and Ethics Weekly of the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS), New York. The author wishes to thank Chetan Bhatt and Anju Bhargava for their interest and help in preparation of this paper.