Are the Vedas Literal or to be Interpreted?

Amongst those who consider the Vedas something worth knowing, there are usually two opposing opinions about how they should be understood. One camp says, “Don’t take them literally, they are meant to be interpreted and adjusted according to the time, place and circumstance of the individual.” The other camp says, “They are absolute wisdom, and we should follow them exactly, without changing them or making up new interpretations.”

The argument can go back and forth forever because in truth neither side is entirely correct nor entirely wrong. Let us consider how the true method of utilizing and understanding the Vedas harmonizes both views and correct them both as well.

Consider the four opening statements of Brahma-Sūtra (which is Vyāsa’s ingenious attempt to summarize and harmonize the entire Vedic library in one short booklet). The first two sūtra tell us, “(1) Inquire about brahman, because (2) everything is an expression of it.” The next two sūtra address the question of pramāṇa — the question, “from whom should I inquire about this amazing and subtle subject?” Sūtra 3 tells us śāstra yonitvāt – “[The answer to this inquiry] is born from śāstra [Veda].”

It is important to realize that the sūtra says śāstra is yoni – the mother, the womb of the answer, it is not literally the answer itself. In other words śāstra describes itself as the information and direction you need if you will have any hope of directly comprehending the most mysterious of all mysteries and the more important of all things, the essence of your own true self, brahman. 

Sūtra 4 then tells us, tat tu samanvayāt — “but that must be syncretic.”

Syncretic is an absolutely important word! It means wholistic and fully consistent, harmonized, and unified.

You will not get any divine wisdom, or even any practical value, by picking and choosing quotes here and there from amongst the Vedas. You must study the entire thing and comprehend how each statement relates to all the others. You must study, in other words, in context. 

The Veda emphatically says ācāryavān puruṣo vedaḥ — the Veda must be learned from someone who has directly experienced and realized it as a result of their careful study under the guidance of someone who directly realized and studied it. If you haven’t done this and you quote the Veda, you are just trying to prove your own points and hijacking the authority carried by the Vedas.

The Veda provides six appendices, vedāṅga, to ensure that they are correctly studied and practiced. The third and fourth (vyākarana – grammar, and nirukti – etymology) are absolutely essential. After all, the Vedas are in the form of words. If we are not extremely careful with language we will not be able to unlock what is in those words! Quoting the Veda to prove some point without really knowing the grammar and etymology of the Sanskrit words you are quoting (if you care enough to even know the actual Sanskrit), is again just trying to coopt the authority carried by the Vedas and employ it in your own service.

Besides these vedāṅga, Jaimini has written mimamsa-sūtra – an enormous work dedicated to Hermeneutics (rules of textual interpretation) primarily for the “earlier” Vedas (the four samhitas). And beside that, Vyāsa wrote brahma-sūtra – a brief but extremely dense and intense work giving the core meaning particularly of the “later” Vedas (upaniṣadas and so on). When people quote the Vedas without knowing the conclusions and methodologies established in these works, it just gives everyone a bad taste of “Vedic” culture.

Each different school has a different key person who establishes the core understanding of the Veda held by that school, on the basis of the above mentioned principles. For us Gauḍīya Vedāntī that person is Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, specifically the Ṣaḍ-Sandarbha: his exposition of Vyāsa’s elaboration on brahma-sūtra, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. Without carefully studying the Ṣaḍ-sandarbha no one should realistically hope to be able to comprehend the Gauḍīya Siddhānta (comprehension of the Veda).

From whatever Vedic school attracts you, you must study from it’s founder, who established it on the basis of Vedānta or Purva Mimamsa or one of the other four darśans. Unfortuantely today there are many, many, many people in and out of India claiming to be Vedic Teachers, Yoga Teachers, Vedic Astrologers, Gurus, etc. etc. whose philosophy is not at all rooted in a samanvaya of brahma-sūtra, jaimini-mimamsa-sūtra, yoga-sūtra, nyāya-sūtra etc. Becoming their disciple, or the disciple of the disciple of their disciple will not help anyone unlock the reality in the Vedic revelation.

The Veda explain that sometimes they instruct literally, at other times they advise, and at other times they use analogy, and at other times they employ fiction and the Veda also has a system to differentiate śruti and smṛti so that some parts of the Veda can be kept exactly intact forever, while other parts can change to accomodate for different times and places. In other words, if you study the Veda carefully you will find that they  already have individualization and evolution built into them. You don’t need to add it.

Take the Veda as it is and you will discover that it is incredibly progressive, liberal, inventive, amazing, and mind-blowing. Take the Veda from someone who doesn’t really understand it, and who just uses bits and pieces of it to establish their own agendas, and all your get from that is bile and an upset stomach (best case scenario).

Vraja Kishor

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