Friday Review

Who can study the Vedas?

In his commentary on ‘Apasudradhikarana’ of Brahmasutra (1.3.33-38) Ramanuja declared that the fourth community people are not entitled to carry on the Upasanas prescribed in the Vedas since they do not have the required eligibility, which again is due to their not being initiated into the Vedic study through Upanayanam. But then, in actual social life, Ramanuja did not distinguish between disciples.

In fact, Urangavillidasa (Dhanurdasa) is said to have been converted by Ramanuja as his disciple. It is said that every day Ramanuja while going for his daily ablutions in the Cauvery used to hold the hands of his nephew Dasarathi. However, while returning, he used to hold the hands of Urangavillidasa. What is the meaning behind this daring act? One who opposed the entry of the members of the lower castes into the portals of Vedic study championed the cause for their entry into temples.

Nobody is denying the possibility of spiritualisation for this community. Everybody is entitled to it. Let us say there are two paths leading to a temple of the Lord. One is a mountainous path, full of thorns and hazards. Only those who are used to trek the difficult terrain can take that path and reach the temple.

The other path is an easy and short one, which is free from the hazards. The Prapattimarga may be likened to the second path. Both are, of course, sure to lead one to the temple of the Lord. When Ramanuja, following the traditional view interpreted the “Apasudra” section of the Brahmasutra strictly denying a particular community the right to adopt the Upanisadic method of worship, one has to understand that he was only eager to accommodate them in the second category of devotees who cannot follow the difficult and rigorous Bhaktimarga. Does it speak of the hard-heartedness of Ramanuja?

By the word ‘Veda’ is meant a vast body of literature handed down from time immemorial by a Guru to his disciple through word of mouth. The Vedas are called Srutis for the reason that they are always received through the faculty of “hearing” ( Sruyate iti srutih). Each family has one particular branch of Veda to be studied and kept alive from “loss”. In fact, many branches of the Vedas are “lost” now because there occurred a break sometime in the remote past in the line of their transmission. In other words, the line of guru-sishya did not continue for many of the Vedic branches. The reason, however, is not known now. For instance, the Rigveda had originally 21 recensions of which only two called the Sakala and the Baskala are available. The difference between these is negligible so much so that they can be treated as a single recension. Krsna Yajurveda had originally 86 recensions of which only four have survived, viz., Taittiriya, Maitrayaniya, Katha and Kapisthala.

In chanting the Veda, swara or accent is of great importance. In the olden days, the Upanisads also were being chanted with svara-notation. There are three “swaras” - Udatta (Acute), Anudatta (Grave) and Svarita (Circumflex). If the “svara” changes, the meaning of the word itself changes totally.

It may also be stated here that since preservation of the Vedic texts was the prime concern of seers those days, they did not want to take any chances. They (the seers) did not want to endanger even the few extant Vedic recensions by allowing the “uninitiated” to chant them. Their main concern was saving and preserving the Vedas from total loss, making sure that they are also chanted on proper lines by those who have already been doing it. There was no time for any experimentation. With this end in view, they devised several means.

There are for instance, what are called the Samhitapatha, Padapatha, Kramapatha, Rathapatha and Ghanapatha. Of these, “Samhitapatha” represents the text of the Vedic hymn in its original form; and all the remaining varieties of chanting have the sole purpose of preserving the “Samhitapatha”. It is because of these steps taken by the seers several thousands of years ago, we are able to preserve the Vedic texts from further oblivion.

In the light of this, one can have an idea as to how difficult it is to learn the Veda, chant it with proper swara and preserve it for posterity. For all these reasons some were found not suitable to chant the Veda in the prescribed way and adopt the arduous Upasanas prescribed in the Bhaktimarga. But they were entitled to worship the Lord through the easier path called ‘Prapatti’ or ‘Saranagati’?

But, strictly speaking, all this is based upon a total misconception about the relative importance of different parts of human body. As a matter of act, “feet” are as important as any other part of the body. From the viewpoint of ancient scriptures, the sacred river Ganges emanated from the foot of Lord Trivikrama. Further, when deities are worshipped, flowers and leaves are offered at their feet only. In the descriptions of deities found in literature, the practice is to start the description from feet upwards, culminating in the crown (padadi-kesanta varnanam). Further, the act of Prapatti or Saranagati (wholehearted surrender) is done to the feet of the person resorted to, but not to any other part of the body. For example, Saint Nammazhvar says in his Tiruvoimozhi (VI. 10.10): “Unnadikkizh amarndu pugundene” (“Indeed, I sat and entered underneath your feet”). Yamuna also conveys the same idea in his Stotraratna (v.22): “tvatpadamoolam Saranam prapadye.”

All this is enough to show how important are one’s feet, and how noble is the varna which emanated from the “feet’ of the Supreme Being. As has been the case, wrong interpretation of our scriptures without keeping in mind the situations and circumstances under which they were composed, has presented an ugly picture of our social order, that getting back to the good old days of a meaningful and peaceful co-existence among the various sections seems to be Herculean task. It may be pointed out that in ancient India varna was a reflection of the doctrine of natural distribution of duty among various sections of people so as to preserve the homogeneity and dignity of all components of society. There is no question of appreciation of any particular community or communities at the cost of others.

The content is from the book, ‘Sri Ramanuja and His Socio-Religious Thought,’ written by Mrs. Y.G. Rajalakshmi.

(The supplement will carry articles by various authors on Sri Ramanuja up to his millennium birth anniversary.)

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 2:56:17 AM |

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