Tag Archives: Puranas

History of the Vedas

History of the Vedas

The Rig Veda is one of the oldest religious te...

The Rig Veda is one of the oldest religious texts. This Rig Veda manuscript is in Devanagari (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Bhāgavatam clearly states (1.4.14) that the Vedas as we know them are not ahistorical. It says that Vyāsa’s efforts to organize the Veda into its current form began “when Age Two was in its third phase.”

Translating this into years is complicated because there are many types of “ages.” Ṛg Veda’s Vedāṁga Jyotiṣa, for example, defines a five-year age. Manu Smṛti and some sections of the Purāṇas define four ages as multiples of 1,000 years. While other places in the Purāṇas, and the Surya Siddhānta, define four ages as multiples of 360,000 years. It seems that the duration of an “age” is relative to the context. The five-year age is used in calendric contexts. 1,000 year ages are used in historical context. 360,000 year ages are used in astronomical context. It appears that the correct definition to use in this case is the historical age.

Ages are numbered in reference to their multiple, which is the reverse of their numeric order, and can therefore be confusing: “Age One” is the “Fourth Age” in successive order.

Each age has three parts. The main part of an age lasts for its ordinal (1-4) multiplied by 1,000 years, or 360,000 if the context is astronomical. The two other parts are the “dawn” and “dusk” transitions, each of which lasts 10% as long as the main part.

Scholars and scientists know with significant confidence that Age One began very near 3,100 BCE (and it seems that the historical and astrological ages were synchronous at this point). The age before it, “Age Two,” lasts for 2,000 years, with an additional dawn of 200 years and a dusk of the same duration. Vyāsa’s efforts began in the third part of Age Two, its dusk: roughly 3,300 BCE. This means that the history of the Vedas as we know them begins about 5,300 years ago.

From that date, over a period spanning many generations (ŚB 1.4.23), Vyāsa oversaw the evolution of the vast Vedic library. Towards the end of this process he decided to write Mahābhārata. After this, still unsatisfied after about 200 years of work, Vyāsa conceived of the seed of inspiration to write the Beautiful Tales of the All-Attractive (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam). This was during the very early dawn of Age One.

The modern rational mind raises several questions, among which are, “How can Vyāsa have lived for more than 200 years?” and “How could there have been well developed human culture 5,300 years ago.” The second question is easy considering that the currently accepted archeological model has observed human culture existing about 10,000 years ago, and in India from about 8,000 years ago. As for the first question, I can reply in two ways: (1), the “religious” way: Vyāsa was an incarnation of God, and had an unusual lifespan. (2), the “scholastic” way: Vyāsa was the founder of a school, and successors and students took his name as a title and attributed their works to him.

Our current copy of the oldest Veda, Ṛg, contains astronomical information that dates it in the vicinity of 5,000 years ago, consistent with the statement of Bhāgavatam itself.  The astronomical information found in our current version of Bhāgavatam dates it in the vicinity of 300 AD, this is about three thousand years short of when Bhāgavatam says it was conceived by Vyāsa and first given form by Śuka. In this regard one can conclude: (a) there can be a great deal of time between the original concept and the final version; (b) the scribes of Bhāgavatam may have set the story into a distant past via present tense; and (c) the scribes may add or revise information in their copies, over time.

Narayanam Namaskrtya

The supreme Godhead: Nārāyaṇa,
the best of humans: Nara,
the goddess of learning: Sarasvatī,
and the great author: Vyāsa…

After respecting them
our words can be successful

Sri Suta recites this verse at the beginning of his presentation of Srimad Bhagavatam. He quotes it from a previous source. Vyasa also speaks this verse at the beginning of every major division of Mahabharata.

In sanskrit:

नारायणं नमस्कृत्य नरं चैव नरोत्तमम् |
देवीं सरस्वतीं व्यासं ततो जयमुदीरयेत् ||

nārāyaṇaṁ namaskṛtya naraṁ caiva narottamam
devīṁ sarasvatīṁ vyāsaṁ tato jayam udīrayet

Considering that Vyasa himself is mentioned honorificly in the verse, it seems unlikely that he composed it himself. It was probably a composed by Ganesha during his task of scribing the dictations of Vyasa. Hence it is particularly appropriate for Suta to quote, as his task is similar to Ganesh’s: he wishes to represent the dictations of Suka (Vyasa’s son).

Bhagavatam… Buon Appetito!

There is a tree made of wisdom,
knowledge that fulfills your every desire and need.

On this tree is a fruit,
at the peak of ripeness.

A parrot lands upon the branches and pecks it with her beak,
its sugars and sweetness multiply.
like thickened juice within an impossibly thin skin.

Aho! You there!
You who crave for deep emotional significance!
You who wish to taste the true pleasures of life itself!
Yes you there, earthling!


Relish the nectar of this Bhagavatam-fruit,
again and again,
eternally without end!

This third verse of Srimad Bhagavatam is a beautiful poetic metaphor! The Sanskrit itself has an amazing meter. If “.” is a short syllable and “-” a long one, the meter of the Sanskrit is:

. . . – . . – | . . – . –

Here I will put the long syllables in bold:

nigama-kalpa-taror galitaM phalaM
zuka-mukhAd amRita-drava-saMyutam
pibata bhAgavataM rasam AlayaM
muhuraho rasikA bhuvi bhAvukAH

The meaning is as beautiful as the structure:

The Tree

The tree made of wisdom is a metaphor for the Vedic literature. “Vedic” literature is misunderstood by the definition of modern western scholastics. It is not merely the 3 or 4 original “Veda” but all the ancillary works which elaborate upon and elucidate it. That is the Indian conception of the term Vedic, and since India is the mother of the Veda, we ought to give it deference, no?

In any case, Vedic literature refers to the entire corpus of philosophical, practical, technological and religious material cultivated through at least a few dozen centuries in the region today called India. This includes the ritualistic four Veda; the explanation of their philosophical import, the Upanishad (108 principle books). The summary study of all this philosophy, the Vedanta Sutra. The application and retelling of the rituals and philosophy in semi-historical tales, the Purana and Itihasa (like Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, and Ramayan). And many other appendixes to the original four vedas in the form of manuals (Aranyas) and treatises (Samhitas and Siddhantas), etc.

To go back to the poetic image – it would be stupid to envision a tree of wisdom and knowledge with only four branches! The tree of wise knowledge (“veda”) has hundreds of branches spreading in all directions, in the form of Puranas, Itihasas, Upanishads, Aranyas, Samhitas, Siddhantas, Tikas, etc. etc.

The Fruit

There are many fruits on this huge tree, of course, but one fruit is particularly special because it is perfectly ripe. What does it mean to be “perfectly ripe”? It means to be at the absolute pinnacle of one’s maturity.

The Srimad Bhagavatam is thus depicted as the absolute pinnacle of Indian spiritual wisdom at the peak of ripeness. We will soon hear from its opening stories how the main author, Mahamuni Vyasa, compiled this after compiling all other Vedic works and having thus achieved a zenith of spiritual realization. In particular the Srimad Bhagavatam is the grand-finale of Vedic wisdom because it is (a) the sequel to the Vedanta Sutra, which is otherwise the most important Vedic book; the “second ripest fruit”, you might say; (b) the 18th of the 18 main purana, thus also the culmination of Indian thought as expressed through that medium. Thus the Srimad Bhagavatam represents the pinnicle of both the philosophical genius of the Vedanta-Sutra, as well as the poetic and theatrical mastery and relative ease-of-understanding developed in the Puranas.

The Parrot

The Sanskrit word for parrot is zuka. Mahamuni Vyasa is given credit as the compiler of Srimad Bhagavatam, but the main narrator of this tale is Vyasa’s son zuka-deva (“The divine parrot” – Sukadeva Goswāmī). Suka is really the one who expanded upon the core material within this Purana and made it as sweet and wonderful and easily digestible as it now is.

The imagery of a “parrot” is not always positive in English because it carries the meaning of one who simply repeats words without understanding their meaning. This connotation is absolutely absent from Sanskrit poetics. Instead the connotation of “parrot” is a bird with a special type of saliva that, when the bird bites a fruit, causes that fruit to become extremely sweet and ripe. So do not carry over the English connotation and imagine that the Bhagavatam is being narrated by someone who merely repeats what he heard from his father, without understanding. Not at all. Quite the opposite. The Bhagavatam is as sweet as it is because Sukadeva’s telling of it enhanced, expanded, and amplified the original meaning into an even more wondrous perfection.

Drink It!

Finally, we are implored to take our place in the poem. Our place is to grab the fruit and enjoy it!!!

What is unusual about this fruit is that it satisfies hunger without reducing the hunger, and it is eaten without ever diminishing. The more you meditate upon what you will hear in Srimad Bhagavatam, the more you will be able to meditate upon it! The more you enjoy it, the more and more you will be able to enjoy it.

Specifically this metaphor refers to the principle that meditation upon the Supreme Entity, Śrī Krishna is infinite. It is not a means to a goal, but is itself the goal and the means. Therefore it is never abandoned. Even the persons who are steeped in spiritual perfection continue to feast upon the perfect fruit of Srimad Bhagavatam. Even beyond liberation, even in the spiritual locus, our tongues will forever taste and vibrate the delicious topics discovered within this amazing book!