The Vedas, also referred to as Vedantic philosophy, are the most ancient Hindu teachings known to man. They’re also the most authoritative. Created by Indian sages around 3000 B.C.E., the Vedas can be translated as “knowledge,” and you could say divine knowledge at that.
I’ve studied the Vedas in bits and pieces, typically via the teachings of fairly advanced (philosophically speaking) yoga teachers. I’ve also read excerpts from the Upanishads and listened to podcasts by Vedic scholars; however, the Vedas will always hold its mysteries that I'll enjoy a lifetime of discovering. In this article, though, I’ll aim to further explore just what the Vedas are and what they can teach us as students of yoga.
Comprised of four different books, the four Vedas are known as the "Rig Veda," the "Yajur Veda," the "Sama Veda," and the "Atharva Veda." There are also different sections in the Vedas, which are called: Samhita, Brahman, and Aranyaka (i.e. the Upanishads).
There is one central theme in all of these, which is the idea that humans are not separate from universal consciousness. We don’t really operate as individuals when all is said and done. Rather, we are part of a greater whole. And the greater whole is a part of us.
Written in Sanskrit, arguably the world’s most ancient language, the literature found in each of the four Vedas contains a wealth of cosmological wisdom, which has the potential to enlighten us in regards to our understanding of the Cosmos and our place in it. The "Rig Veda" is the oldest and often considered to be the most important one. One thousand hymns dedicated to all of the Hindu gods and goddesses are found within the "Rig Veda."
The "Yajur Veda" serves as a kind of teacher’s manual for priests, consisting of instructions regarding ceremonies and rituals. The "Yajur Veda" has often been likened to the Egyptian "Book of the Dead."
“Veda means knowledge and the Vedas are really an ocean of knowledge.”
— "Yajur Veda"
The "Sama Veda" is basically the words of the "Rig Veda" put to music. As such, it is not just read or recited, but sung. Containing about 1,900 verses, almost all of them are taken from the "Rig Veda."
In the "Atharva Veda," we see charms, spells and incantations. It’s believed to show us what life was like during the time the Vedas came into existence. There are also profound philosophical quotes like this one:
“All are equal in birth and death. Differences arise only during the interval. The emperor and the beggar are both born naked; they sleep equally silently…”
(For more quotes, try 11 Beautiful, Inspirational Quotes From Yoga Scripture.)
What the Vedas Teach Us
The Vedas teach us that there is a dual reality: one is material and the other is non-material. We can look to the heavens and see a non-material sky filled with material, celestial beings: planets, stars, etc. And while this non-material reality remains beyond ordinary perception, many scholars throughout the ages recognize the Vedic knowledge of the material reality as extraordinary.
And according to Swami Vivekananda,
“The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst; and the word they use for it is, therefore, Mukti—freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery.”
The Cosmic Dance
According to the Vedas, a continual dance of cosmological creation, sustenance and destruction is at the heart of all existence and natural phenomenon. The Cosmos undergoes an infinite number of deaths and rebirths. This is what the Vedas teach us. They also teach us that the Cosmos is made of prakriti — the elemental stuff of matter and mind. There’s earth, water, air, fire, ether, intelligence and ego.
Atman and Brahman
The Vedas also introduce us to the concept of Atman and Brahman. Atman is the individual, innermost Self of every living being. Its universal counterpart is known as Brahman. Brahman causes prakriti to exist. In fact, it is thought that before the Cosmos existed, all was dark. Then, Brahman (Hinduism's creator god) engaged in meditation and was empowered to create the universe.
(Here's why you should get to Know Your Atman (Self).)
According to Vedic cosmology, the universe is made up of 14 vertical planetary systems called lokas. Each loka resembles a galaxy, and is made up of planets, stars and other celestial beings. The planetary system on the very top is where Brahman lives. Directly under Brahman, on another loka, is where the ascetics live. This is the ideal place where they practice yoga and meditation in a lush, serene environment. The ascetics return to the non-material world after living their lifetime here, on this loka.
Keep an Open Mind and Study Continually
For the Western mind, Vedantic philosophy can be challenging to understand. However, the more you open your mind to another world of thought, the easier it will be to really get the Vedic teachings. Every time you practice yoga, or chant a mantra in japa meditation, you’re also tapping into the ancient wisdom of the Vedas.
If you wish to learn more about the Vedas, consider buying a book about them. Do a little bit of study each night. Keep meditating. Challenge any limiting beliefs you might have. And perform your sadhana every, single day. With time, you’ll come to experience the essence of what the Vedas are teaching us: You are not separate from the whole. You are here, there and everywhere, because you are a part of the unified field of Reality — of Pure Consciousness.
(Read on for the Secrets of the Ancient Yoga Scriptures.)