The Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2021
27 August 2021
The Early Vedic Period
The Vedas first appeared in the original language spoken in Central Asia by the Aryan people, then gradually developed into what was called the Vedic language which became Sanskrit in the 7th and 6th c. BCE. In the Early Vedic Period there was no written language and the Vedas were transmitted orally. The Ṛigveda describes how the Aryans—primarily those who settled in the Punjab—fought in battle, how kingdoms rose and fell, and how their culture developed.
Why are they called Vedas?
The Rigveda is the earliest piece of Vedic literature, and is like the source for the other Vedas. They have a vast scope. Since there are no written histories of ancient India, there is no way to learn about Indian culture prior to the 4th c. BCE other than to study the Vedas, primarily the Rigveda, and the two great epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana. In brief, these texts are the only way to learn about ancient Indian culture, knowledge, and ways of thought.
The word Veda has many meanings but the main one is knowledge or prajna. The Vedas originated orally from the power of the gods. This is analogous to the Gesar epics of Tibet, which came through ordinary people who didn’t know how to read or write but would dream of events in the time of Gesar. After recovering from a brief sickness, they could recite volumes of the Gesar epic, as if playing a recording.
In the same way, the Indians believed the ancient sages could recite the Vedas through the power of the gods. If we practise the Vedic texts, they believed, we will be able to develop unexcelled wisdom.
Vedic Literature includes many compositions or texts
- Mantra or Samhit are the root texts of the Vedas
- The Brahmanas are the texts of Brahma or ritual texts
- Upanishads: literally ‘staying nearby’, primarily the philosophy of the Vedas
The root texts of the Vedas are the Mantras or Samhitas. The second and third sections are like commentaries.
The Four Vedas
- The Rigveda is the earliest and most important Vedic text
- The Yajurveda or “Worship” Veda is the second, which is divided into the light, known as Krishna, and Dark, known as Shukla.
- The Sāmaveda is the Veda of melodies or chants
- The Atharvaveda is the latest of the root Vedic texts.
The four Vedas did not appear at the same time. There is a sequential order. Some appeared earlier, some later and there is a divergence in their meaning. They came over the course of several generations. In general, the basic framework of the Four Vedas is the same, so they supplement and augment each other.
Initially, the Rigveda was the only Veda. It was composed during the period from 1500 to 1000 BCE and is primarily a compilation of 1000 different collections of hymns or praises to the gods, containing some 10,000 verses. In books it numbers ten. When it first appeared, the Rigveda was not written, as there was no writing, but was preserved through oral transmission from one teacher to another. Only in the Late Vedic Period was it compiled and written down.
The Brahmins took a great interest in preserving the precise pronunciation of Sanskrit exactly as it was. They took great care with the oral transmission, keeping it strictly in sequence.
Thus, the Chinese Master Yìjìng who went to India at the end of the 7th century, recorded in his Record of Buddhist Practices Sent Home from the Southern Sea, that they were all transmitted orally and not written down, and the Brahmins with the sharpest minds could recite 100,000 verses. The Prajna Paramita, for example, also has 100,000 verses, the Karmapa noted.
Recitation means to memorize the words and then ‘translate with your mouth.’ This was very beneficial as there were many invasions in which artefacts were destroyed so if the texts were burned there would be a huge loss but if it’s memorized it will remain.
The Karmapa added that in the Vinaya we talk about reciting texts from memory and this comes from the Vedic tradition. For example, if we can clearly understand all the stories and the reasons for the rules in the Vinaya then we know what we should do in any given situation. If we have to look it up in a text, then we cannot be completely independent. We have to bring along the text. This is a crucial point, he said.
In brief, the Rigveda is much earlier and is the basis for the other Vedas, the root. It is a collection of hymns to nature written by the Aryan poets in which they recognised the natural forces as gods. The other three Vedas also quote from the Rigveda. Thus, the Rigveda is not only an important ancient Indian text, but also an important historical source for the study of Indian religion and mythology. The 19th-century German scholar and Indologist Duessen wrote that “there is no way to know Indian philosophy without knowing the Rigveda,” and this seems true, the Karmapa commented.
The ancient Rishis (Sages)
Who was the author of the Rigveda?
In the Early Vedic Period, there was no distinction in caste; anyone could perform sacrifices, sing praises, or pray. Later, after the caste system developed, only a few of the castes were able to perform sacrifices and recite hymns. There are differences in education, and skills and it was these more educated ones called The Seven Noble Ones or Sages, who wrote the Rigveda. However, researchers believe it was probably a compilation of texts compiled over several hundred years, written by people of the same family lineage, who compiled the Vedas. The Seven Sages or Rishis were revered as the intermediaries between gods and humans. For this reason, the authors of the Rigveda are called the “Seven Nobles” or ‘Sapta Tsaya’.
When performing elaborate rituals, it was necessary to invite those who specialized in that function. For example, a king would need a priest, or purohita, to perform sacrifices to the gods, and to conduct rituals to ensure victory in battle. The caste called “Brahmans” developed from those who had specially studied to perform the rituals of the Vedas.
Initially, there were no temples and no fixed place where sacrifices were conducted. There were not even any figurines or representations of the gods, either paintings or statues. The sages who were the authors of the Vedas were actually living like ordinary people with families and belongings. The head of every household, usually the father or the eldest son, had to uphold three responsibilities: performing sacrifices, fighting battles, and farming. Until the caste system developed, one person had to do everything.
In the Early Vedic Period, among the best known of the sages was the Sage Viśvāmitra and the Sage Vasiṣṭha. The reigning king, Sudās, respected them both greatly. However, as the saying goes, in a single land you cannot have two kings; or two tigers cannot live harmoniously on the same hill. There were many disputes between the two sages, and their followers also had disparate views; there were even fierce battles between them. During the later Vedic period after the caste system had developed, people decided that Vasiṣṭha was in the Brahmin caste and Viśvāmitra was in the Kshatriya or royal caste.
King Sudās was an important historical figure of that early period as the leader of the largest and most powerful of the tribes.
Ten different tribes or clans became envious and rose to oppose King Sudās. But the king was very skilful and defeated them, resolving all the internal disputes. Not only that, he preserved the literature and religion strongly, while supporting the two sages. Due to his efforts, the Rigveda and other important literature remained extant for thousands of years.
Most of the hymns in the Rigveda are praises to nature, which was considered sacred. The view was that nature had a divine character. Or from another perspective, they are hymns of offering to all the gods.
Myths and gods
Myths are extremely important in the study of culture and society. The Vedas often speak of the gods, and researchers have many different opinions about it. In general, when human civilization first developed or before they developed wider knowledge, humans believed that everything in nature had feelings and life, just like humans and that nature had greater powers than humans.
Subjectively speaking, myths combine people’s hopes, fears, and wishes to seek the truth of their situation. To look at it from one perspective, myths take a form that combines the environment, climate, customs, and society of that time. Thus, myths are crucial for research into the study of history and culture. It can be said that they are a form of the original religion of human beings, and a form of philosophy.
Therefore, studying Vedic mythology is actually the same as researching the original roots of Indian philosophy and religion. Studying Vedic literature is like studying the origins of India. Vedic mythology is still alive because people still believe the Vedas and it has become the basis for the philosophies and religions that appeared after the Veda. To this day, in a sense, its life continues. It is different from ancient Greek or Roman mythology, which have long been dead. No one believes or practises them anymore.
It can be said that if you do not understand Vedic mythology, you will not be able to understand Indian thought after all. There are many influences from the Vedic myths and literature particularly in the Secret Mantrayana. As Buddhism is an important Indian philosophy, it has many different connections with Vedic literature.
Gods of the Vedas
When the Vedas initially appeared, the deities seemed to be particular aspects of nature that were held to be gods, like the sky and the sun. The sun must be a god. It ripens crops, it gives us warmth, it is greater than humans. They took a particular aspect of nature and called it a god. Even today in the Himalayan regions and in Tibet people consider a mountain to be a god and when they see an old tree they believe there must be a naga living there. Now we think that it’s superstition. But viewing nature as a god and the natural environment to be alive, and that its power is greater than the power of humans, enabled them to understand how we have to care for the environment.
The Karmapa added, these days we think people can do whatever they want with nature. We use everything. We destroy everything. We take everything. Our environmental problems in this era are something we have to face up to. It’s critical at this point. The ancestral way of looking at the environment has a real value.
The Three Classes of Vedic Gods
Around the 5th c. BCE, the Vedic gods were divided into three classes or groups., the gods in the heavens (dyusthana), the gods in between (antarikasthana in the air), and the gods on earth (pritivisthana). Each of these levels had eleven sub-levels, to make a total of 33, so they were called the gods of the thirty-three. This is speaking only in terms of the principal levels. His Holiness then gave a brief introduction to a few of the main deities.
I. Gods in the heavens
1. Dyaus, the god of light
Dyaus is the common ancestor of all gods. He must have been a deity common to the Aryan people before they dispersed into different groups. Other groups who split off from the Aryans called him Zeus, Jupiter, Deus, Jovis. In ancient Greece and Rome, he was considered the main god or king of the gods. However, in India, he lost his position to other gods. In the Rigveda, this deity and the earth goddess are combined and called Dyavaprithvi—heaven and earth, in which form they are worshipped. All the other gods arose from heaven and earth. They thought of all the gods as originating from a single family.
2. Varuna, the Water God
Varuna is one of the ancient deities, from the time the Aryans arrived in India. (He is in the form of a king riding a crocodile). He is thought to be the nature of all-pervasive space. He has the greatest magical powers because he’s space itself. He is omniscient, looking down from above, knowing each thought that appears in peoples’ minds, no matter how remote their location on earth. He is the knower of all karma. This deity is symbolic of the laws of cause and effect and monitors good behaviour. Thus his role is to take care of and limit human beings. Some contemporary researchers say that this deity is the basis of the universal emperor or chakravarti. Later his characteristics and qualities were transferred to Indra.
The characteristics or essence of this deity is similar to the creator god Jehovah of the Christian religion. This god has a very stern and serious demeanour, and seems so lofty that people did not feel close to him. Thus he did not satisfy the people and gradually disappeared. Additionally, the Rigveda frequently speaks of this god as being associated with rainfall and other water because rainfall is from the sky, Later, he became the Water God. In the Secret Mantrayana, when we do the Torma in Three Parts, one of the gods is Varuna.
Vishnu in Tibetan means “entering pervasively,” because he has the power to cross the sky in three steps. He was associated with the strength and power of the sun, and was considered in the Vedas to be an extremely important deity. Later in the Puranas, he was considered one of the three great gods, along with Brahma and Shiva. This occurred because of changes in his nature or characteristics. Prior to that, Vishnu was nothing more than a deity who could cross the sky in three steps.
The first step is from where the sun rises in the east. With the second, he reaches the zenith of the sun at noon, and the third is where the sun sets in the west. Where he arrives at the centre of the sky at noon, is the place in which the gods and the ancestors of humans lived happily; so everyone believed that after death, they would be born there. This was the greatest prayer and aspiration of people of the Vedic Period. For this reason, Vishnu gained higher and higher status in people’s minds as they hoped to become like the sun. So they sang many praises to Vishnu and made plentiful offerings. The most important gods were related to the sun and the sky.
4. The goddess Uṣhas
Uṣhas is an ancient goddess, representing sunrise or dawn. The word Eos in ancient Greek and Aurora in Latin are considered to have a common origin with Uṣhas.
At the time when the Aryans were living in the Five River Basin, or the Punjab, the dawn was especially beautiful. Seeing that beautiful appearance, the Vedic poets were unable to resist offering her praises. Thus this goddess opened the expanse of the sky from the east, dispersed the night, and was able to eliminate the perils of demons and darkness.
The hymns to this goddess in the Vedas are extremely beautiful and expressive and among the most numerous. It is said that this goddess is a friend of human beings and always has a radiant smile, like a young maiden. Her body never ages, yet she is the one who limits the human life span. The Vedic hymns with the most beautiful poetry are praises of Varuna, the Water God, and the hymns with the most beautiful imagery are for this goddess; not only in Indian literature; but also in many of the most beautiful songs and poems in world religious literature.
II. The gods in the air
Aside from the god of fire, Indra is the god who has the largest number of Vedic hymns dedicated to him, a sign of how venerated he was. A quarter of the hymns in the Rigveda are praises of Indra, so we can see how much Indra was revered. During the Vedic period, he was recognized as the most powerful, the most important and adored god, the one who protected the people of India. In the religious texts of the Zoroastrians (Persian fire worshippers), Indra is thought to be an evil god or a god of darkness. In Buddhism, Indra is said to be the lord of the gods, the master of the divine palace Vijaya in the heaven of the 33.
However, it is still difficult to clearly identify Indra’s origins. If we look at the words of the hymns, Indra has qualities of the heavens, the in between, and the earth, so it is difficult to say which of the three levels he is included in or which aspects of nature. But generally it is asserted that at Indra was a manifestation of wind and rain in the atmosphere, Since this deity is not found in any of the other Aryan pantheons, Indra is a god unique to India.
When the Ayrans left their homeland and came to Punjab—a region with extreme heat—they did not feel as much faith and devotion for the sun god as before. Instead, the object of their devotion changed to the gods who could bring rainfall, wind, and clouds. For this reason, we can infer that earlier they had devotion to the gods of the heavens, but later it changed to the gods in-between.
When the Aryans went to India. Indra occupied the highest status among the gods, although he was not an ancient god. He was a child born of heaven and earth, born to be victorious in battle. Thus, Indra is the most powerful of all the gods, the one who most enjoyed drinking alcohol or soma and fighting in battle. His physical strength and flexibility were great, and he would wield lightning, arrows, and hooks as weapons. Riding on a golden chariot drawn by two horses, surrounded by the Maruts, to defeat Vritra, the king of the demons, the Indians considered him a guardian deity and a god of war. Eventually he took the form of the king of gods, the Samraj.
2. Vayu or the God of Wind
Vayu is like Indra’s assistant. He always rode with Indra in his golden chariot. His function was to cure people’s illnesses and grant long life.
3. Rudra, the Storm God
There are hardly any hymns to Rudra in the Vedas. Later this Storm God became the god Maheshvara, one of the three great Indian deities, and extremely important. The qualities of this Storm God are that he had the power to send diseases to humans and animals. He also had the ability to cure and heal them. His form changed from a Storm God to that of Maheshvara, so the reason for calling him Bhairava (the Terrifying One) is, not only does this god have the power of love and compassion, but like the storm god, he has the power to bring danger and harm humans.
The Karmapa finished at this point by introducing the three Gods of the Earth, Agni, Soma, and Privthi, but postponed a detailed description of them to Day Four.