Vedas as the source of transcendental knowledge

By editor - 26.5 2020

Therefore, realizing that these (pratyaksa etc.) cannot serve as proper means for proper knowledge, let us turn to the Vedas themselves as we seek to comprehend that reality which transcends all and yet is the substratum of all, whose nature is inconceivable and wondrous - to the Vedas, whose utterances have no earthly origin, being the source of all knowledge, both material and spiritual, and having been handed down in an unbroken line of succession from time immemorial.

This is confirmed by the following scriptural statements: Brahmasutra 2.1.11 ("If it be argued that since mere reason provides no solid ground on which to base our position, then we will find some other means of inference on which to base our position, we reply 'no, you will end up in the same difficulty'."); Mahabharata, Bhismaparva 5.12 ("One should not apply reason to those realities which are inconceivable; for it is the essence of the inconceivable to be distinct from the material objects.") Brahmasutra 1.1.3 ("Since the scriptures are the source [of the knowledge of Brahman]."); Brahmasutra 2.1.27 ("This is verified by Sruti, since scriptures are the source [of the knowledge of Brahman]."); and Bhagavata Purana 11.20.4 ("O Lord, this Vedas of yours is the supreme 'eye', by virtue of which the demigods, forefathers and mortals apprehend those things beyond the range of perception, regarding even the highest goal and the means of attainment.").

Itihasas and Puranas superior to the Vedas

And here, since the Vedas are at present difficult to go through completely (due to unavailability of complete text and decrease in human memory) and hard to comprehend - for even the sages who sought to ascertain their meaning contradict one another - we will examine sabda in the form of Itihasa and Puranas alone, both of which partake of the nature of Vedas, and serve to ascertain the meaning of the Vedas. Furthermore, these portions of the Vedas which are not known on their own can only be inferred by examining Itihasa and Puranas. For these reasons, it is evident that in the present age, Itihasa and Puranas are alone capable of generating true knowledge.

Thus we find in the Mahabharata and Manu-smrti, "One should supplement the Vedas with Itihasa and Puranas" (MBh, Adiparva 1.267); and elsewhere, "Purana' is so called because it completes (Purana)." For just as a chipped gold bracelet can not be filled with lead, so also the Vedas cannot be supplemented by something non-Vedic.

The identity of Itihasa and Puranas with the Rg Veda etc., with respect to their transcendental origin, is expressed in the Madhyandina Sruti itself: " the same way, my dear, what is know as the Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Itihasa, Purana... has been breathed forth from that Supreme Lord." (Brhad aranyaka U. 2.4.10)

Therefore, it is stated in the Prabhasa Khanda of the Skanda Purana; "In ancient times, Brahma, the grandsire of the demigods, practiced severe austerities. As a result, the Vedas became manifest along with the six auxiliary branches and the pada and krama texts. Then the entire Purana, the embodiment of all the scriptures, unchanging, composed of the eternal sabda, sacred, and consisting of a hundred crores (of verses) issued forth from Brahma's mouth. Listen carefully to the different divisions of that (Purana): the Brahma Purana is first..." (Skanda P. 2.3-5) The figure "a hundred crores" is known to be the number (of verses) which exist in Brahmaloka.

"He [Brahma] manifested the four Vedas, known as Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, one after the other, from his four mouths, beginning with the one facing east." (Bhagavata P. 3.12.37) "Then, the all seeing Lord manifested Itihasa and Puranas, the fifth Veda from all of his mouths." (Bh.P. 3.12.39) Here the actual word "Veda" is used with reference to Itihasa and Puranas. Elsewhere we find: "The Purana is the fifth Veda;" "Itihasa and Puranas are said to be the fifth Veda;" (Bh.P. 1.4.20) "He taught the Vedas, with the Mahabharata as the fifth." (MBh, Moksadharma 340.11) etc.

If it were not the case (that Itihasa and Puranas are Vedic in nature), then the characterization of them as the "fifth" in the preceding verses would be unwarranted, since only things of the same kind can be combined to form a single sum. It is stated in the Bhavisya Purana: "That which is known as the Mahabharata is Krsna Dvaipayana's (i.e. Vyasa's) fifth Veda." We also find in the Chandogya Upanisad of the Kauthumiya Sakha: "Sir, I have learned the Rg Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the fourth, or Atharva Veda, as well as Itihasa and Purana, the fifth Veda among the Vedas" (Ch.U.7.1.2) Thus is refuted the well known belief that the terms, Itihasa and Purana occurring in Br.U. 2.4.10 refer merely portions of the four Vedas themselves. Therefore it is stated, "The Brahma Purana is first..."

Vayu Purana explains why Itihasa and Puranas are considered the fifth Veda: "Thus almighty Lord, Bhagavan (Vyasa) appointed me [Suta Goswami] to be the authoritative expounder of Itihasa and Puranas. (At first) the Yajur Veda alone existed; he arranged that into four parts. The four Hotrs (priests) arose within; thereby did he create yajna (sacrifice). Along with the Yajur Veda came the office of the Adhvaryu priest, with the Rg Veda that of the Hotr priest; with the Sama Veda, that of the Udgatr priest; and with the Atharva Veda, that of the Brahma priest." (Vayu P. 60.16-18) "(Then) O Best of the twice born, (Vyasa), skilled in the meaning of Puranas, assembled the Puranas (and Itihasa) by (gathering together) ukhyanas, upakhyanas, and gathas. This remaining portion also falls within that (original) Yajur Veda: this is the conclusion of the sacred scriptures." (Va.P. 60.21-22)

Moreover, in the formal study of the scriptures, known as brahmayajna, the use of Itihasa and Puranas is indicated by the words "the Brahmanas, Itihasa and Purana". This would also not be possible were Itihasa and Puranas not Vedic in nature.

Therefore the Supreme Lord declares in the Matsya Purana: "O best of the twice-born, realizing that, in course of time, men become unable to comprehend the (original) Purana, I assume the form of Vyasa, in every age, and summarize that Purana." (Matsya P. 53.8-9) "In every Dvapara Yuga, the Purana consisting of four lakhs (of verses), is divided into eighteen parts and manifested in the world of mortals. Even today, the (verses) number a hundred crores in the world of the devas. The four lakhs found here represent a condensed version of that (original Purana)." (Ma.P. 53.9-11)

And the fact that Suta said "This remaining portion also falls within that original Yajur Veda" shows that the four lakhs of verses which represent the most significant portion of that (original Purana), having found their way into the world of mortals as a concise summary of the essential parts of that Purana, do not represent a separate composition.

The same idea is demonstrated in the Vayaviya Samhita of the Siva Purana by discussing the Puranas alongside of the Vedas: "The Lord (Vyasa) summarized the four Vedas and divided them into their four sections. Since he divided the Vedas (vyastaveda), he is remembered by posterity as "Vedavyasa". The Purana was also condensed into four lakhs (of verses). Even today, (the verse) number a hundred crores in the world of the devas." (Siva P. 1.33-34) Here, the word "condensed" means "condensed by him (i.e. by Vyasa)". And the names "Skanda", "Agneya", etc. (by which the various Puranas are known) refer either to those who first declared them, or to those who arranged them. Therefore, if one sometimes hears (the Puranas) spoken of as non-eternal, it is merely with reference to the fact that they are sometimes manifest and sometimes unmanifest. Thus, the Vedic nature of Itihasa and Puranas is proved.

Nevertheless, sutas [bards] and others are allowed access to the Puranas as they have the right to chant the name of Krsna, which represents, the choicest fruits of the creeper of all the Vedas". As declared in the Prabhasa Khanda (of the Skanda Purana): "O Best of the Bhrgus, the name of Krsna is the sweetest of the sweet, the most auspicious, the choicest fruit of the creeper of all the Vedas, of the nature of pure consciousness. If sung but once, whether with devotion or with contempt, the name of Krsna will transport a mere mortal to the other shore." As stated in the Visnu Dharma: "He who utters the two-syllable word 'Hari' reaps the fruits of the study of the Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda." And the ability (of Itihasa and Puranas) to determine the meaning of the Vedas is mentioned in the Visnu Purana: "On the pretext of describing the events of the Mahabharata, he has illustrated the meaning of the Vedas. The Vedas all find a firm resting place in the Puranas - about this there is no doubt."

Moreover, even if (Itihasa and Puranas) are considered to belong to the class of sastras which illuminate the meaning of the Vedas, still, they excel all others due to the eminence of their expounder (Vyasa). As stated in the Padma Purana, "Vyasa knows that even Brahma and the others know not. He knows all that is known, while what is known to him is beyond the reach of others." As stated in the Skanda Purana: "Others have borrowed bits and pieces from the ethereal realm of Vyasa's mind for their own use, just as one would remove objects from a house and use them.

The same idea is found in the Visnu Purana, in the words of Vyasa father, Parasara: "Then, in this twenty-eight yuga cycle, my son, the Lord Vyasa, took the one Veda, consisting of four parts, and divided it into four. All the other 'Vyasas', and myself as well; also arrange the Vedas just as the wise Vedavyasa had arranged them. Therefore, know for certain that the different branches of the 'Vyasas' in the four yugas were created for this reason alone. O Maitreya, know that Krsna Dvaipayana (Vyasa) is the Lord Narayana Himself; for one who on earth but He could have composed the Mahabharata?" (Visnu P. 3.4.2-5)

And in the Skanda Purana: "In the Krta Yuga, the knowledge which had issued forth from Narayana remained intact. It became somewhat distorted in the Treta Yuga and completely so in the Dvapara Yuga. When, due to the curse of the sage Gautama, knowledge turned into ignorance, the bewildered demigods led by Brahma and Rudra, sought shelter with the benign, refuge-giving Narayana, and informed Bhagavan Purusottama of their purpose in coming. And the great Yogi, the Lord Hari Himself, descended, taking birth as the son of Satyavati and Parasara, and rescued the fallen Vedas."

Puranas superior to the Itihasas

The word "Vedas" in the preceding verse indicates both Itihasa and Puranas as well. It is thus established that the study of Itihasa and Puranas alone leads to the highest good. And of these, it is the importance of Puranas alone which is seen; for it is stated in the Narada Purana: "O Fair One (Parvati), I consider the significance of the Puranas to outweigh that even of the Vedas. The Vedas all find a firm resting place in the Puranas - about this there is no doubt. He who looks down on the Puranas will take birth in the womb of an animal, and even if well-behaved and peaceful, will find no refuge anywhere."

As stated in the Prabhasa Khanda of the Skanda Purana: "O Best of the Twice-born, I consider the significance of the Puranas to be unchanging, like that of the Vedas. The Vedas all find a firm resting place in the Puranas - about this there is no doubt. The Veda is afraid of those of little knowledge, thinking 'They will twist my meaning'; and so the meaning of the Veda was fixed in ancient times by means of Itihasa and Puranas. For what is not found in the Vedas, O twice-born, is found in Smrti; and what is not found in either, is related in the Puranas. He who knows the four Vedas, together with the Vedangas and Upanisads, without knowing the Puranas, is not to be thought of as wise." (Sk.P. 2.90-93)

Puranas and the three modes of nature

But now, even though the authoritative nature of Puranas has been thus established, the same doubt still remains i.e. since the Puranas are also not available in their entirety, and since they are chiefly concerned with establishing the superiority of various deities, their meaning is also difficult to comprehend for modern man of meager intelligence. As stated in the Matsya Purana:

"A Purana should consist of five parts, as opposed to an Akhyana. The glory of Hari is greater in sattvika scripture; the glory of Brahma is greater in rajasika scriptures; and that of Agni and Siva greater in tamasika scriptures. In mixed scriptures the glory of Sarasvati and the pitrs is said to be greater." (Matsya P. 53.65,68-69)

The name "Agni" in the preceding verse refers to the various sacrifices which are offered in the different fires. The conjunction ca in the phrase sivasya ca indicates that Siva's consort, Parvati is also meant. The term "mixed kalpas" refers to the many scriptures composed of sattva, rajas and tamas. "Sarasvati" refers to various deities indicated by Sarasvati, who is the embodiment of various words. And the pitrs refers to the sacrificial acts which lead to the attainment of the world of the forefathers, as declared in Sruti: "Through karma one attains Pitrloka." (Br.U.1.5.16)

The categories into which the various well-known Puranas fall are described in the Matsya Purana itself, based, solely on stories concerning the different kalpas; but what means can be adopted by which the relative importance of these Puranas can be determined? If we base our decision on the relative importance of the three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas, then, on the strength of such statements as "From sattva comes knowledge" (Bh.G.14.17) and "Sattva is the basis for the realization of Brahman", we will have to conclude that only sattvika Puranas etc. are capable of leading us to the highest truth.

But then (it might be asked), how can you reconcile the divergent views which are propounded by means of various arguments with regard even to the highest truth? If you propose that the entire significance can be determined merely by studying the Brahmasutra, composed by the Lord Vyasa himself in order to fix the meaning of all the Vedas and Puranas, the followers of the other sages who wrote sutra texts will not accept your proposal. Furthermore, someone might interpret the significance of these cryptic and terse sutras in a distorted manner; how then can one know which one represents the correct interpretation?

This issue could be settled once and for all if only you could point to one among the many scriptures, which exhibits the characteristics of a Purana, is divinely composed, represents the essence of all the Vedas, Itihasas and Puranas, is based on the Brahmasutra, and is available throughout the land in its complete form.

Well said! (we reply), for you have just described the very Bhagavata Purana which we consider to be the sovereign ruler of all pramanas.

Bhagavata Purana (Srimad Bhagavatam) as the topmost pramana

Even after manifesting the complete body of Puranas, and composing the Brahmasutra, Bhagavan Vyasa was still not content, and so he composed a book which serves as a natural commentary on his own Brahmasutra, which was revealed to him in samadhi, and which alone illustrates the common significance of all the scriptures as seen by the fact that it begins by referring to the Gayatri, characterized as a concise statement of the significance of all the Vedas. For its true nature has thus been described in the Matsya Purana: "That is to known as the Bhagavata, which, basing itself on the Gayatri describes dharma in all its fullness, and which narrates the slaying of the asura Vrtra. Whoever will make a copy of this Bhagavata and offer it away, mounted on a throne of gold on the full moon day of Bhadra month, will attain the supreme goal. This Purana is said to contain eighteen thousand (verses)." (Ma.P. 53.20,22)

The word Gayatri in the preceding verse refers to the word 'dhimahi', which is always found in Gayatri and thus serves as an indicator of Gayatri, and the complete meaning of Gayatri; for an outright quotation of this mantra, which is the prototype of all mantras, would not have been proper. The fact that the Bhagavata has the same significance as that of the Gayatri is seen in the phrases janmadyasya yatah ("from whom comes the origin etc. of the universe") and tene brahma hrda ("who revealed the Veda [to the creator Brahma] through his heart")(Bh.P. 1.1.1), which form identical explanations regarding the substratum of the entire universe and the ability to inspire the workings of the intellect, with those of the Gayatri. The word dharma in the phrase dharmavistarah signifies the "supreme dharma", for it is declared in the Bhagavata Purana itself: "The supreme dharma, devoid of all ulterior motives, is found in this Bhagavata." (Bh.P. 1.1.2) And it will be made clear in a subsequent section that dharma is characterized only by such practices as contemplation etc. of Personality of Godhead.

Thus, we also find in the Skanda Purana, Prabhasa Khanda: "That is to be known as the Bhagavata which, basing itself on the Gayatri, describes dharma in all its fullness, and which narrates the slaying of the asura Vrtra. And that is known in the world as the Bhagavata, which has its origin in tales concerning the gods and men who live in the Sarasvata kalpa. Whoever will make a copy of this Bhagavata and offer it away, mounted on a throne of gold on the full moon day of Bhadra month, will attain the supreme goal. This Purana is said to contain eighteen thousand (verses)." (Sk.P. 2.39-42) And these same lines are found in the Agni Purana as well.

And in another Purana cited by the commentator (Sridhara): "That is known as the Bhagavata which contains descriptions of the Brahmavidya of Hayagriva and accounts of the slaying of Vrtra, which opens with reference to the Gayatri, and which consist of twelve skandhas and eighteen thousand (verses)." And the fact that the term "Hayagrivabrahmavidya" from the preceding verse occurs alongside of the phrase "the slaying of Vrtra" shows that the reference is to Narayanavarma" (the armour of Narayana). The name "Hayagriva" in this verse refers to the horse-headed Dadhici, who inaugurated the knowledge of Brahman known as "Narayanavarma". The fact that he bore the head of a horse is established in the sixth skandha (Bh.P. 6.9.52) with the phrase "having the name 'Asvasiras' ('Horse-headed')"; and the fact that "Narayanavarma" signifies "Brahmavidya" is indicated in the verse cited by Sridhara in his commentary on Bh.P. 6.9.52: "Hearing this, Dadhici, the son of Atharva, having been respectfully received by the twins Asvins, instructed them in the Pravargya ceremony and the Brahmavidya, fearful of breaking his promise to them."

Since the Bhagavata is dear to the Lord and cherished by His devotees, it is the most sattvika (of Puranas). As stated in Gautama's question to Ambarisa in the Padma Purana: "O King, do you recite the Bhagavata in front of Hari, containing accounts of the King of Daityas (Hiranyakasipu) and (his son) Prahlada?" (Padma P., Uttara Khanda 22.115)

In the same section, Gautama instructs Ambarisa in the greatness of the Vyanjuli vow: "One should remain awake throughout the night (of the 'Vyanjuli Mahadvadasi) and listen to compositions concerning Visnu: The Bhagavad-gita, the Thousand Names of Visnu, and the Purana taught by Suka (the Bhagavata). These bring contentment to Hari, and should be recited with great care."

Elsewhere in the same section, "O Ambarisa, if you wish to put an end to the cycle of birth and death, listen daily to the Bhagavata taught by Suka, and recite it also with your own lips."

And in the Dvarakamahatmya from the Prahlada Samhita of the Skanda Purana: "He who remains awake (on the Harivasara) and recites the Bhagavata with devotion, in the presence of Hari, attains the abode of Visnu, together with his entire family."