The Vedas – Discourses of His Holiness


Discourses of His Holiness Śri Candrasekharendra Sarasvatī, Śrī Śaṅkarācārya of Śrī Kāncī Kāmakoṭi Pīṭha

 Translated into English  by      Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan


Of the fourteen dharma-sthānas (the sources of knowledge of dharma), six are auxiliaries, four are sub­auxiliaries, and the Vedas are four. Ṛg, Yajus, Sāma, and Atharva are the four Vedas.

The greatness of the Veda is limitless. Yet, on the empirical level we may understand its greatness in a way.

Of the holy places in the world Kāśī is believed to be the greatest. While speaking about other holy places, it is said that they are equal to Kāśī. From this, the greatness of Kāśī is evident. This place (i.e. Vārānāsī) is referred to as the Southern Kāśī. Uttara-Kāśī is on the Himalayas. Vriddhachalam is known as Vriddha-Kāśī. Sometime ago I stayed at Bugga: that place is also called a Kāśī. If there is a place referring to other sacred places, it is said: “This one is equal in greatness to Kāśī, this other one is even a little greater”. There is a verse about Kumbakonam.

* Discourse given on October 25, 1932.

anyakṣetre kṛtam pāpaṁ

            puṇyakṣetre vinaśyati

 punyakṣetra  kṛtam pāpaṁ

           vāraṇasyāṁ vinaśyati

vāraṇasyāṁ kṛtam pāpaṁ

           kumbhakoṇe vinaśyati

kumbhakoṇe kṛtam pāpaṁ

           kumbhakoṇe vinaśyati

The purport of this is that Kumbhakoṇam is holier than Kāśī. By saying so it is made evident that Kāśī is holy in a special manner. By giving Kāśī as the standard of comparison, its greatness gets increased. About a hundred years ago a great man composed a śloka about Kāśī.

ksetrānam uttamānām api yad-upamayā kā’pi

             loke praśastih

cittadravyena muktikrayam abhilaṣatām


sāksād- viśveśvarasya tribhuvanamahitā

yā‘purā rājadhā

ramyā kāśī sakāśī bhavatu hitakarī

bhuktaye muktyaye naḥ

(Mahiṣa -śataka – vyākhyānam)

That which has become famous by being cited as the example for the most sacred places is Kāśī. There, if one gives the money which is bhakti (devotion) one could easily get mukti (release). The market where this is obtained is Kāśī. This is what is stated in this śloka.

Similarly, the Veda which is great by virtue of its contents has received esteem in empirical usage also.

The Rāmāyaṇa is a well-known epic. It is in different forms. The story of Rama has been told in plays, musical compositions, poems, etc. Everyone talks about the Rāmāyaṇa. In Tamil, Kambar has sung the Rāmāyaṇa in the vritta metre. Arunācala Kavirāyar wrote in the form of a play. There are versions of the Rāmāyaṇa in all languages such as Mahārāshtra and Telugu. Kālidāsa wrote the kāvya ‘Raghuvamśa ‘, It mostly relates to the story of the Rāmāyaṇa. King Bhoja composed the Rāmāyaṇa -campū.

Bhavabhuti wrote the Uttararāmacarita. Rāmabhadra Dīkṣita wrote a play called Jānakī-parinaya. There are several types of Rāmāyaṇa: Ananda Rāmāyaṇa, Tattva-­saṅgraha Rāmāyaṇa, etc. To the question, why is the Rāmāyaṇa so all-pervasive? One who has written the story of Rāma replies thus: Just as sugar is put into the pāyasam prepared in any house, so the Rāmāyaṇa is a necessary ingredient (of anything that is good). When there is no pūjā possible, some recite the Rāmāyaṇa in its place. When the greatness of the Rāmāyaṇa which is so all-pervasive is referred to, it is said that it is the Veda.

vedaḥ prācetasādāsit sāksād-rāmāyaṇatmanā

The Mahābhāratais also called a Veda.

bhārataḥ paṅcamo vedaḥ.


Even as the Rāmāyaṇa is held in esteem, the Vaisnavas hold in esteem the Tiruvāymoli. It is said, “Māran Śatagopan did the Veda into Tamil”. Thus, that too is regarded as a Veda. In Tamil the most famous work on ethics is the Kural; and it is described as a Veda.

Tiruvalluvar wrote the Tirukkural. At that time there was in Madurai the last Sangam. There was a plank given by Lord Sundareśvara. Those who had the necessary fitness could sit on it. If anyone did not possess the fitness, the plank would reject him. We are not inclined to believe this. But we are ready to believe that if a coin is put in, a ticket comes out of the machine kept for the purpose. Tiruvalluvar went to the Madurai Sangam taking his Kural with him. Generally scholars bestow no esteem on others. Because of this, one who is dull-witted cannot claim that he is a learned person. When taken in this way, the scholars’ attitude does some good. But that tendency should not be allowed to exceed the limit. That would be wrong.

The members of the Madurai Sangam asked Tiruvalluvar to place the manuscript he took with him on the plank. It accommodated that manuscript alone, and threw out the other scholars who attempted to get on to it.

This made the scholars realize the greatness of the Kura1; and each one of them composed a verse praising the great work. One of them said thus:

“It is not easy to weigh the relative merits of Samskrit and Tamil and say that one is superior to the other – because Samskrit possesses the Veda, while Tamil has the Kural of Tiruvalluvar”. (Tiruvalluva-mālai)

The question, which is greater – Samskrit or Tamil? might have had meaning till yesterday; but from today it has lost significance. Samskrit is great because in that language there is the Veda. There has come into being in Tamil a work which is equal to it – the Kural. The scholar who composed the verse quoted above gives the reason why the Kural is great. The meaning is that the Kural is equal in greatness to the Veda

It is well-known that Tevāram and Tiruvācakam are regarded as the Tamil- Veda. These fall within our religion. The Christians brought their scripture to this country. They named it Satya-veda. Thus, when we consider the usage current in the world it is clear that the Veda is accorded special esteem. It is a well-known practice to refer to an established great text while speaking about the greatness of other texts.

At the end of the Dvapara age and at the beginning of Kali, i.e. about 5,000 years ago, Sage Vyāsa classified the Veda into four parts. He it was that was responsible for the coming into being of Uttaramīmaṁsā, the eighteen Purānas, the Bhārata, etc. He divided the Veda into branches, taking into consideration the ability of a single person to study and benefit by it. Each branch is called a śākhā. Vyāsa’s four disciples, Sumantu, Paila, Jaimini, and Vaiśaṁpāyana, learned from him the four Vedas, Ṛg, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva, respectively. Vyāsa taught the Purāṇas to Sūta. Therefore, in the Purāṇas it is mentioned that Sūta spoke them.

In the Ṛg-veda there are many śākhās. Of them, only one śākhā is extant. It is known as the Aitareya-śākhā. For the Yajur-veda there were 101 śākhās. Of these, only three are extant. There were 1000 śākhās for the Sāma- veda. Only two of them are available now – Gautama­-śākhā and Talavakāra- śākhā. Not even one śākhā of the Atharva-veda is at present available. In Orissa (Utkal] in the North there are eighteen sub-divisions of Brahmins. Of them, one group is known as Atharvanika. From the name we come to know that the forebears of this group should have studied the Atharvana- śākhā.

Vyāsa divided the Veda into 1180 śākhās. At present only eight remain. [Although there were many more, Vyāsa thought that number was enough for the Kali age. That number itself has been so considerably reduced now.]

In a śākhā are contained all topics that are necessary for a Brahmin to perform his karmas from birth to death.

ekāṁ śākhāṁ adhītya śrotriyo bhavati.

The kings of those days used to grant what are known as śrotriyam villages to a scholar who had studiedan entire śākhā. No tax would be levied on such villages. As those who studied the Veda had no other profession, it was known that they could not pay kist. Even now there is no tax on śrotriyam villages. It is only in our country that there have been generations of families who perform duties relating to spiritual welfare, without engaging themselves in secular professions. Therefore, our country has a greatness which will never be destroyed. Those foreigners who have come to know of our country’s greatness through Vivekananda and others hold us in high esteem. Paul Deussen of Germany says that there is no one greater than our Sankarācārya. He has studied well the Advaita-śāstras. He has sent a photograph of his to be placed in Kāladī, the birth-place of the Master. It is in our country that there is the power which makes for instructing the Truth that is the Self. Those who study the Veda will not endeavour to ensure for themselves the means for empirical comfort. So, in order to keep them above want, the kings gave them a little land and levied no tax on it. Hence it was that in our country there were many śrotriyas (those who had studied the Veda).

Each śākhā has a three-fold division (1) Mantra (2) Brāhmana and (3) Upaniṣad. Mantra is that which yields merit by its recitation. Dedicating to the particular deity which a Mantra celebrates, the sacrificial material should be offered into the sacred fire, saying “na mama”. “This is not mine” is the meaning of that expression. It signifies that everything is offered unto God. Which Karma is to be performed in dedication of which deity is explained in the Brāhmaṇas. Mantra and Brāhmaṇa constitute the ritual sections. The concluding part of each śākhā is an Upaniṣad. Why do we perform Karma in accordance with the directions found in the Brāhmaṇa? If good acts are performed for the sake of good results, and if these are dedicated to God, we shall receive God’s grace, and truth will be revealed.

The Bhāgavata says:

janmādy-asya yato’nvayād-

                            ­itarataścartheṣvabhijṅaḥ svarāt

tene brahma hṛdāya ādikavaye muhyanti


tejo-vārimrdāṁ yathā vinimayo yatra trisargo’


dhāmnā svena sadā nirasta-kuhakaṁ

                                 satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi.

We stay away from truth. Sometimes we think that it would be good if we act in a particular way. But that does not become possible. The Upaniṣad teaches [i] that all our actions should be dedicated to God and (ii) the way to reach the supreme Self.

There is an Upaniṣad for each śākhā. We find an Upaniṣad in everyone of the śākhās known to us. In the Kāṇvaśākhā alone there are two Upaniṣads – the Iśāvāsya and the Brhadhāraṇyaka. There are some Upaniṣads belonging to śākhās which we do not know. In the Ṛg-veda there is the Kaṭhopanisad. Its śākhā is not known. The same is the case with the Kauṣitakī -brāhmana-upaniṣad. Even though the śākhā might have disappeared, the truth has been preserved in our country. Vyāsa divided the Veda into śākhās so that one may study at least one śākhā. But, even then, we have not been able to preserve all of them, and have lost many of them. In Tamil there is an ancient work on grammar called Tolkāppiyam. It was written by Trnadhūmāgni, one of the twelve disciples of Agastya. One who has written a commentary on this work says in one place that it was composed before Veda Vyāsa classified the Vedas, and that there were at the time four Vedas, which were called then Taittīrīya, Pauliya, Talavakāra and Sāma. In the Divya-prabandham there occur the words ‘Pauliya, Chandoga’. These, however, are not names of the Vedas. Taittirīya and Pauliya are the names of śākhā s.

In Kerala, the Nambudiri Brahmins are known for their Vedic studies. Even those who are engaged in secular pursuits would have studied the Veda when they were young. Those who are Brahmacārins would follow the ancient tradition of wearing loin-cloth (kaupīna) and bearing such marks as deer-skin, staff, etc. But now even they are changing. The cultivated class – when they fall – fall very low.

Among the Nambudiris many belong to the Ṛg-veda. In one of the manuscripts reserved by them, the name Pauliya is found written for the Ṛg-veda. It is learnt from this that Pauliya is a name for the Ṛg-veda.

If one performs the rituals enjoined in Mantra, Saṁhitā, etc., one would gain prosperity in many future births. If the very same rituals are performed in a spirit of dedication to God, they will produce purity of heart, and thereby pave the way for mokṣe.

We possess several instruments for knowing what we do not know. Some things we know through our eyes; some others, through our ears. Some we know through inference, and some through words. What happens in America cannot be known directly through words; it must be known through telegrams, newspapers, etc

For knowing that which cannot be known through the means of communication available in this world, we require a medium. The Veda is the name for the knowledge which cannot be known through empirical instruments, and which belong to a region which is not accessible to telegrams.

    There are some portions of the Veda which are to be set aside. They are called arthavāda. If the Veda says what can be known through other means, that saying cannot be pramāna. The Veda is not intended for this purpose. Its purpose is to convey what cannot be understood through any other means. What is it that we do not know?

There are two views in regard to metaphysical reality. There is this doubt: Are the things that we see as many really one, or are they really many? In the field of science, it was thought at first that the things that constitute the world are separate from one another. Then, it was discovered that the primary elements are 72. It is by mutual combinations that these 72 give rise to the various things. If this inquiry is pursued it will be realized that the 72 elements are traceable to one substance. Those who inquire into the nature of the Self declare that all arise from consciousness.

In our country, we call the one advaita, and the many dvaita. Of these two, which is the truth? What does the Veda say? If dvaita were the truth, one need not go to the Veda for knowing about it. What appears before our eyes is dvaita. Is not the purpose of the Veda to tell us what we do not know? It declares what we cannot understand with our intellect. That is what is important. What we do not know is advaita. If the Veda teaches anything, it must be advaita. Even if dvaita were true it will not say about it. If one considers the karma-kāṇḍa (ritual section) of the Veda, it may appear that the Veda favours dvaita. But when we consider the conclusion, it is unity that will stand out. If the Veda says what could be known through other pramānas, that is called anu-vāda (restatement). Thus it has been declared.

anuvādo ‘vadhārite

Some critics ask, “Can we trust the Veda? Tell us a reason”. If something is within the grasp of reason, why should the Veda say it? The Veda is that which declares what is beyond the reach of reason.

The Veda is eternal. The sages endowed with divine vision imparted it to us. The Veda has come to tell us of that which cannot be proved, that which cannot be reached by the intellect. The Veda makes known that which is supersensuous.

All those who have listened to what has been said about the Veda should perform some obligatory duty. The Brahmins should perform Brahma-yajn̄a everyday. This is one of the five mahā- yajn̄as. Brahma (in the present context) means the Veda. We should perform Brahma-yajn̄a so that the power of mantra will shine like a perennial lamp. Tarpaṇa should be offered to the Maharṣi pertaining to the śākhā which one has to study. After this, at least two akṣaras of the Veda should be recited. Even if this becomes impossible, Gayatrī-japa should be done without fail. Gayatrī is the quintessence of the Veda. It is laid down that only after being initiated into Gayatrī; one should begin the recitation of the Veda. Gayatrī should be recited everyday a thousand times. If there is no time for this, the mantra should be recited at least ten times. The Gayatrī -mantra will produce quietude of mind. The deity of the mantra is Sūrya (Sun God). The day dedicated to Sūrya is Sunday. Conveniently this happens to be the weekly holiday. Therefore, on that day one should get up from bed at 4 o’clock, and do Gayatrī -japa a thousand times. This would bring about welfare. This is what I would say to you.

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