Posted by: adbhutam | March 13, 2010

‘Vedic History’ and ‘Worldly History’

श्रीगुरुभ्यो नमः

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.10 there is the teaching pertaining to the ‘creation’ of the Veda-s by Brahman.  The mantra reads thus:

स यथार्द्रैंधाग्नेरभ्याहितात् पृथग्धूमा विनिश्चरन्त्येवं वा अरेऽस्य महतो भूतस्य निश्वसितमेतद्यदृग्वेदो यजुर्वेदः सामवेदोऽथर्वाङ्गिरस इतिहासः पुराणं विद्या उपनिषदः श्लोकाः सूत्राण्यनुव्याख्यानानि व्याख्यानान्यस्यैवैतानि निश्वसितानि ॥

//”As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various kinds of smoke  issue forth, even so, my dear, the Rig—Veda, the Yajur-Veda,  the Sama-Veda, the Atharvangirasa,  history  (itihaasa), mythology (purANa), the arts (vidyA), the Upanishads, verses  (slokas), aphorisms (sUtras), elucidations (anuvyAkhyAnas) and  explanations (vyAkhyAnas) are like the breath of this infinite  Reality. From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed forth.//

Sri Shankaracharya, while commenting on this mantra, writes for the word इतिहासः of the Upanishad: ‘such as the dialogue, etc. between UrvashI and PurUravas –   उर्वशी हाप्सरा.’ (Shatapatha brAhmaNa

The Editor of this edition of the Bhashyam, Sri S.Subrahmanya Shastri, in the foot notes writes:

इतिहासः पुराणम् इत्यादौ भाष्ये वेदगत-अर्थवादरूपाणि पुरावृत्तानि ग्राह्याणीत्युक्तम् । भारतादीनामनादिवेदप्रतिपाद्यत्वासंभवात् ।

//By the terms ‘itihAsa and purANam’ of the mantra, the BhAshya intends to say: those statements contained in the Veda-s, as having ‘occurred’ in the ancient times are to be taken.  However, the texts of the MahAbhArata, etc. cannot be regarded to be included by these Vedic terms as it would be unreasonable to hold that they have their source in the Vedas.//

It would be interesting to note in the Kathopanishat, for this opening mantra:

// Vajasravasa, desiring rewards, performed the Visvajit sacrifice, in which he gave away all his property.  He had a son named Nachiketa. // the Acharya starts the commentary with the words:

//तत्राख्यायिका विद्यास्तुत्यर्था । // The *story* there is by way of eulogizing the knowledge.//

The Acharya, consistent with His Brihadaranyaka Bhashya we referred to earlier, writes in the Kathopanishad context too: this is an AkhyAyikA,  an account of a past event aimed at eulogizing , stuti, arthavAda.  Now, ‘arthavAda’ could be a statement of an actual incident/event of the past, (भूतार्थवादः) bhUtArthavAda, or a mere eulogy: stutyarthavAda (गुणवादः) or even a statement of a fact, in the manner of an allusion, that is already known: अनुवादः.  In any case, all these come under the category of ‘itihAsa/purANa’ in the Vedic context.  Thus, we have a certain entity in the Veda that is called an ‘itihAsa/purANa’ by the Veda itself.

विरोधे गुणवादः स्यात् अनुवादोऽवधारिते ।

भूतार्थवादस्तद्धानात् अर्थवादस्त्रिधा मतः ॥

//There are three kinds of ‘artha-vAda-s’.  1. GuNavAda or metaphor where the literal meaning is incompatible with what is established by some other pramANa, 2. anuvAda or restatement where the meaning is established by another pramaNa and 3. bhUtArthavAda where the meaning is neither established nor precluded by any other pramaaNa-s.

( //

//Such “stories” in the Vedas become purposeful only because of the injunctions associated with them and they belong to the category of “arthavada”. Why does a doctor print his certificate in advertising his medicine? To persuade people to buy it (the medicine). In this way in arthavada untruth is mixed with truth. The untrue part is called “gunavada”. There is another term called “anuvada”. It means stating what is already known. For instance, the statement that “fire burns”.

Mentioning the ingredients of a medicine is an example of “bhutarthavada”. “Gunarthavada” is to tell a story, even though untrue, to make it useful for the observance of a rule. “Do not drink liquor” is an injunction (or interdiction). To tell the “story” that a man who got drunk was ruined is arthavada. The purpose- or moral- is that one must not drink. To say that if a man drinks he will be intoxicated is anuvada. ( //

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 abound.

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 ‘Veda-s’:

//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


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