Vedic Culture: As Relevant Today as Ever
By Stephen Knapp
By investigating the knowledge and viewpoints in the many topics found in Vedic culture we can certainly see that the practice and utilization of this Vedic knowledge can indeed assist us in many ways. In regard to all the trouble we presently find in this world, maybe it is time to look at things through a different and deeper view to find the answers and directions that are so needed. The knowledge and understandings of this great Vedic culture may indeed be what will help us see through the fog of confusion that seems to envelope so much of society.
What we find in Vedic culture are areas of study, progress and expression that are as relevant today for human advancement as they were hundreds or thousands of years ago. India and its Vedic culture has contributed much to the world, such as its music, beautiful forms of art and architecture, martial arts, astronomy, holistic medicine in Ayurveda, and the mathematical system based on the number ten, along with its yoga and philosophy. In the United States, yoga has exploded into a three billion dollar industry. A recent survey (at the time of this writing in 2005) showed that 16.5 million people are practicing yoga, or 7.5 percent of the United States. Also, the Yoga Journal magazine has grown from a circulation of 90,000 in 1998, to 170,000 in 2000, to 325,000 in 2005.
Vedic mathematics is another example of its contribution to world progress. It is an ancient development that continues to play an important part in modern society. Without the advancements in math that had been established by Vedic culture as far back as 2500 BC and passed along to others, such as the Greeks and Romans, we would not have many of the developments and inventions that we enjoy today. The Greek alphabet, for example, was a great hindrance to calculating. The Egyptians also did not have a numerical system suitable for large calculations. For the number 986 they had to use 23 symbols. Even after the Greeks, the Romans also were in want of a system of mathematical calculations. Only after they adopted the Indian system that was called Arabic numerals did they find what they needed. Weights and measures and scales with decimal divisions had been found from that period which were quite accurate.
The difference was that Vedic mathematics had developed the system of tens, hundreds, thousands, etc., and the basis of carrying the remainder of one column of numbers over to the next. This made for easy calculations of large numbers that was nearly impossible in other systems, as found with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and even Chinese. The Vedic system had also invented the zero, which has been called one of the greatest developments in the history of mathematics.
The numeral script from India is said to have evolved from the Brahmi numerals. This spread to Arabia through traders and merchants, and from there up into Europe and elsewhere. It became known as the Arabic numerals, yet the Arabians had called them “Indian figures” (Al-Arqan-Al-Hindu) and the system of math was known as hindisat, or the Indian art.
Vedic culture already had an established mathematical system that had been recorded in the Shulba Sutras. These are known to date back at least to the 8th century BC, if not much earlier. The name Shulba Sutras meant “codes of rope”. This was because such calculations were used for measuring precise distances for altars and temple structures by using lengths of rope.
The Shulba Sutras were actually a portion of a larger text on mathematics known as the Kalpa Sutras. These and the Vedic mathematicians were recognized for their developments in arithmetic and algebra. Indians were the first to use letters of the alphabet to represent unknowns. But they were especially known for what they could do in geometry. In fact, geometrical instruments had been found in the Indus Valley dating back to 2500 BC. Furthermore, what became known as the Pythagorean theorem was already existing in the Baudhayana, the earliest of the Shulba Sutras. This was presented by Pythagoras around 540 BC after he discovered it in his travels to India. So this shows the advanced nature of the Vedic civilization.
After the Shulba Sutras, Vedic mathematics enjoyed further development in the field of Jyotish, Vedic astronomy, which used all forms of math. Indian mathematicians continued creating systems that were not known in Europe until much later in the Renaissance period. For example, Aryabhatta in the 5th century introduced sines and versed sines, and is credited as the inventor of algebra. He is said to be the first to state that the Earth travels around the sun. However, the ancient Vedic texts have described this many years earlier, which shows the wisdom of the early Vedic seers.
Aryabhatta was followed by Brahmagupta (7th century) who was the great mathematician that especially developed the use of zero and was the first to use algebra to solve problems in astronomy. Next was Mahavira (9th century) who made great strides in the use of fractions and figuring out how to divide one fraction by another. Then there was Bhaskara II (12th century) who made progress in spherical trigonometry and principles of calculus before Newton by 500 years. He used it to determine the daily motion of planets.
The Vedic system of math, as explained in the sutras, also reduced the number of steps in calculations to merely a few that otherwise required many steps by conventional methods. Thus, this ancient science is still worthy of study today.
In 600 BCE, Sushruta recorded complicated surgeries like cesareans, cataract, artificial limbs, fractures, urinary stones and even plastic surgery and brain surgery. Usage of anesthesia was well known in ancient India. Over 125 surgical instruments were used. Deep knowledge of anatomy, physiology, etiology, embryology, digestion, metabolism, genetics and immunity is also found in many texts.
A well-developed medical system was in existence by the 1st century A.D. Progress in medicine led to developments in chemistry and the production of medicine, alkaline substances and glass. Colorfast dies and paints were developed to remain in good condition over the centuries. The paintings in the caves of Ajanta are a testimony to this.
Vedic art is another ancient development that still holds much appreciation in modern times. Art in the Vedic tradition was never a mere representation of an artist’s imagination. It was always a vehicle to convey higher truths and principles, levels of reality that may exist beyond our sense perception. It was always used to bring us to a higher purpose of existence and awareness. In this way, it was always sacred and beheld the sacred. Still today it is used to allow others to enter into a transcendental experience. It may also present the devotional objects of our meditation.
Vedic paintings or symbols are unique in that they can deliver the same spiritual energy, vibration and insight that it represents. In other words, through the meditation and devotional mood of the artist, the art becomes a manifestation of the higher reality. In this way, the painting or symbol becomes the doorway to the spiritual essence contained within. They are like windows into the spiritual world. Through that window we can have the experience of darshan of the Divine or divinities, God or His associates. Darshan is not merely seeing the Divine but it is also entering into the exchange of seeing and being seen by the Divine.
Thus the art, or the Deity, is beyond mundane principles or ingredients, such as paint, paper, stone or metal with which it may be made, but it becomes completely spiritual through which the Deity can reveal Himself or Herself. Thus, the truth of spiritual reality can pierce through the darkness of the material energy and enter our mind and illuminate our consciousness.
To convey higher realities in paintings and sculpture, everything has a meaning. The postures, gestures, colors, instruments or weapons, everything conveys a principle or purpose, which often must be explained to those who lack understanding. Thus, knowing the inner meaning of the painting increases its depth for those who can perceive it, which makes it worthy of further meditation and contemplation.
As with art, dance in India was not merely an expression of an artist’s emotional mindset or imagination, but was meant to be an interpretation or conveyance of higher spiritual principles or pastimes of the Divine. In fact, in the Vedic pantheon Shiva is known as Nataraja, the king of dancers. Shiva’s dance was also not without a more significant purpose. His dance was based on the rhythm of cosmic energy that pervades the universe, and the destruction of the illusory energy by which all souls are given the opportunity for release from the illusion to attain liberation, moksha.
In this way, traditional Indian dance is highly spiritual and often accompanies important religious rituals and holy days and festivals. Vedic dance goes back to prehistoric times. Bharata Muni wrote his Natya Shastra, science of drama and dance, over 2000 years ago. In it he explains that it was Lord Brahma, the secondary engineer of the universal creation, who brought dance (natya) and drama to the people of Earth millions of years ago, shortly after the Earth was created.
Now dance has evolved into a tradition involving various schools and styles but with strict discipline. It is not uncommon that Indian families will have their daughters spend at least several years or more in such study and practice. There is a precise method of postures, facial and hand gestures (mudras), and movements, along with footwork that must be learned and synchronized to the beat and music in order to convey specific meanings, moods and stories to the audience. Many temples, especially in South India, were known for maintaining large groups of dancers that performed at festivals and religious functions.
When the dance is performed according to the spiritual standards, which some view as similar to the practice of yoga, even the dancers can invoke a high degree of spirituality in their own consciousness and bring unity between their inner selves and God. Then the transcendental atmosphere can manifest and draw the Divine to appear in the performers on stage. Thus, the environment becomes transformed and the audience may also experience darshan of the Divine and experience an inspiring upliftment in their own consciousness. In this way, the dance is divine beauty in motion. Or it is a way of invoking the spiritual dimension into our midst. Few other forms of dance attempt to do this.
Various schools of dance include Bharata Natyam, Kathakali, Manipuri, Orissi, Kathak, Mohini Atam, Krishna Atam, Bhagavata Mela, etc. Thus, we may have many dances that convey stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, or Krishna-lila from the Bhagavata Purana. Nowadays this ancient art of Indian dance is enjoying a wide audience and a prominent place on the international stage.
So, as we can see, Vedic culture and its many areas of knowledge and devotional expression are still as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. And humanity can benefit from it by introspection and in spiritual as well as material development as it did in the past.
The power of the Dharma and the relevancy of Vedic culture are found in the number of tools it has always provided in order for humanity to reach its fullest potentials, both as individuals who are searching for their own fulfillment and spiritual awakening, and as a society that can function in harmony with nature and cooperation amongst themselves.
By investigating the knowledge and viewpoints in the many topics found in the Vedic tradition we can certainly see that the practice and utilization of this Vedic knowledge can indeed assist us in many ways. Let us take a look at a few.
Ayurveda is the Vedic system of holistic medicine. It has become quite popular in the West and is continuing to gain ground and acceptance. To understand briefly what Ayurveda is, I let Pratichi Mathur, an Ayurvedic practitioner herself, tell us about it from the book, “Vedic Culture: The Difference It Can Make in Your Life”:
“So what is Ayurveda exactly? Literally translated from Sanskrit it is composed of two words ‘Ayus’ which means life and ‘Veda’ which denotes knowledge. So Ayurveda is the knowledge of healthy living and is confined not only to the treatment of diseases. Life is a vast, and an all-encompassing phenomena, which includes death. On one end, life is a celebration of birth, growth, child bearing, youth and sexuality; on the other end, life also brings forth disease, decay, aging, and loss of vigor. Ayurveda is that ancient art and science that helps us understand this very ‘life’ with all its different shades and colors; understand how best we can undertake this journey; and how we transition through its different phases, example from teenage, to adulthood, to maturity, etc. Following the principles of Ayurveda brings about a profound understanding of the inner ability to have sound body, mind and spirit. From this point of view, Ayurveda is a compendium of life and not disease. This is a major agenda indeed for any system of medicine, but can it be any less--especially if true healing has to take place. Perhaps, this is exactly why Ayurveda manages to get to the root of the disease that distresses the mind or the emotion that ails the body.
“Ayurveda has twin objectives--maintaining the health of the healthy, and cure illnesses of the diseased. Ayurveda, which is not just a system of disease and its management, but literally a living dynamic philosophy and manual on the art of living, is well fitted to meet its objectives. On one hand Ayurveda offers treatments like Panchakarma or even surgery for the diseased; and on the other hand Ayurveda offers preventative medicine for the healthy. These include elaborate details for following ideal daily and seasonal routines, specialized diets for optimizing health and immunity (Ojas), Rasayana Chikitsa (promotive therapy), Vajikarna Chikitsa (aphrodisiac therapy), Swasthavritta (regimen to stay healthy furnishing details on topics such as exercise, smoking for health), Sadachar (social hygiene), etc.
“Ayurveda advocates a complete promotive, preventive and curative system of medicine and includes eight major clinical specialties of medicine namely, (1) Medicine (Kayachikitsa), (2) Surgery (Salya Tantra), (3) ENT (Salakya Tantra), (4) Pediatrics (Kaumatabhritya), (5) Psychiatry (Bhutvidya), (6) Toxicology (Agad Tantra), (7) Nutrition, rejuvenation and geriatrics (Rasayan tantra), and (8) Sexology and virilization (Vajikarana). This shows what a developed science Ayurveda was in ancient times.
“The exact origin of Ayurveda is lost in the mists of antiquity. Since Panini is placed at 7th century BC and Ayurveda depicts non-Paninian Sanskrit grammar, it is logical to place Ayurveda between 6th –10th Century BC. Tracing the continuity of Ayurveda, it is natural to look for the continuing thread in India’s ancient Vedic tradition. Although the term Ayurveda, does not seem to appear in the Vedas, and it appears first in Panini’s Ashtadhayayi, however, there are positive evidences to show that in the Vedic period, medicine as a profession was prevalent. The Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda both mention that there were thousands of medical practitioners and thousands of medicines. References to Ayurveda are found as early as the Rig Veda. The three Rig Vedic gods Indra, Agni and Soma relate to the three biological humors: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. References are made of organ transplants as in the case of the artificial limb of queen Vishpala, daughter of King Khela. The functions of physicians are also described in the Rig Veda.
“Rishi Sushruta, famous Ayurvedic Surgeon, also holds that Ayurveda is a supplement (upanga) of the Atharva Veda. While several other sources including the famous Hindu epic Mahabharata speak of Ayurveda as an upanga of Atharva Veda; several other schools of thought hold Ayurveda as a fifth Veda (Panchamveda). Perhaps Ayurveda grew from Atharva Veda first as a branch and then as a comprehensive vast system deserving it’s own status, or it developed parallel to the four Vedas as an independent knowledge (with close resemblance to the Atharva Veda).”
JYOTISH: VEDIC ASTROLOGY
Jyotish is the Vedic form of astrology, which is an ancient science and is also being accepted and gaining popularity in the West. Vedic Astrology is meant to help the individual better find his or her way through life. It is to assist in discovering one’s highest proclivities, personality, character, qualities and traits and what may be one’s best direction for a career, and other things. Thus a person will least likely waste one’s time in unfulfilling activities, professions or pursuits.
To further our understanding of Jyotish, I let Chakrapani Ullal, one of the most well-known Vedic Astrologers, describe it as taken from the book, “Vedic Culture: The Difference It Can Make in Your Life”:
“We turn our attention now to the subject of a branch of the Vedas called Vedic astrology or Jyotish, which is called the ‘eye of the Vedas’. It has a cognizing influence of the truth of life and self-knowledge. It acts as a mirror to an individual without which one may not know how to approach life most effectively. It is also called the ‘Science of Time’. Time is the source power that rules the universe. All things originate through the procession of time. Hence, Vedic Astrology constitutes the science that maps the structure of time. Astrology is considered divine knowledge that is pure, supreme, secret, and exalted.
“Astrology can be defined as the science of correlations of astronomical facts with terrestrial events, and demonstrates the Vedic understanding of the universal interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomenon, that microcosm and macrocosm are but reflections of one another. Just as mathematics is the organizing principle of science when dealing with inanimate matter, so also astrology is the organizing principle which deals with life and its significance in relation to all living bodies. The planets are seen as reflectors or transmitters of light and solar energy. The solar and planetary rays, like radio waves, affect biological and psychological processes. The rays of influence are unseen vibrations that are not perceptible to the physical eye.
“Astrology gives insight and guidance to the fortunes and misfortunes of men, issues of empires and republics, floods and earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, pestilence and other incidents concerning terrestrial phenomena in relation to the regular movements of the planets.
“Over 10,000 years ago the ancient sages, in their super-conscious state, cognized that there is energy in planets, and that they send out different rays at different angles which bear influence on everything animate and inanimate on other planets. Through their sensitized intuition and repeated observations these highly evolved souls were able to find out the different characteristics inborn in the planets and also discovered that each rules a distinctive part of the human mind/body. It was also found that particular groups of stars known as constellations have different characteristics, and that they modulate the influence of the planets.
“Astrologers say that there are two forces, Daiva and Purushakara, fate and individual energy. The individual energy can modify and even frustrate fate. Moreover, the stars often indicate several fate possibilities; for example, that one may die in mid-age, but that if, through determination, one gives attention in that area it can be overcome, one can live to a predictable old age. Thus, astrology does not say that events must and should happen, but gives the benefic and malefic tendencies which can be directed or modified through conscious effort. The horoscope shows a man’s character and temperament. Though it may show that he could become a criminal, it does not mean he is fated to become so. What it means is that he is just the sort of person who will have criminal tendencies, but they can be checked by proper care and training. Additionally, if emotional and financial challenges are indicated in any particular year, one can certainly meet the crisis better if one knows that it might occur.
“Then, how would one define astrology? It is the philosophy of discovering and analyzing past impulses and future actions of both individuals and nations in the light of planetary configurations. Astrology explains life’s reactions to planetary vibrations.”
Gemology is an important field in today’s market. But when we speak of Vedic gemology, we do not mean that it is merely for judging the value of a gem. The Vedic purpose in gemology is to determine the best type of quality gem for a person to wear. Thus, Vedic gemology worked in conjunction with Ayurveda and Jyotish to establish the best gem a person should wear for health and positive influence. To give a little more understanding about this increasingly recognized field, I include the following description by Howard Beckman, a qualified and practicing Vedic gemologist, from the book, “Vedic Culture: The Difference It Can Make in Your Life”:
“It is a field that is making great strides medically by using gems for illness and disease both of the physical body and the mind. It is a noninvasive therapy that has produced definite repeatable results medically. (It should be noted that only natural gems, not synthetic, have this inherent energy and also that certain gem treatments commonly used for color or clarity enhancement will render the gem ‘dead’ and ineffective.) Our research and record keeping of case histories of gem use in jewelry for astrological reasons has also allowed us to not only prove the efficacy of gems, but in “debunking” commonly held incorrect notions as far as how to recommend them, as well as baseless superstitions.
“It is the energy force of the cosmos that sustains all living organisms. This energy is called ‘prana’. It energizes our bodies throughout life until it leaves at the time of death, leaving the gross material body to decay and return to the elements from which it arose. The Vedic scriptures calculate our life spans in the number of breaths we are allotted during our lives. If we use this energy more quickly, then the life span will be shorter. (Long distance runners are renowned for dying in their 50’s.) If we conserve our energy, especially through systems such as the yoga system, then the life span may be extended. The Ayurvedic system of healing first evaluates the intake and distribution of prana within both the physical and subtle (ethereal) bodies of an individual.
“Gem therapy has been used by many ancient cultures and especially the wearing of gemstones on the body had great significance for the Vedic culture, other than the purely cosmetic or ornamental value that gems are mostly used for today. The science of Ayurveda when combined with Vedic astrology gives a wealth of knowledge in the correct application of gemstones to amplify planetary rays, which can have a dynamic effect on one’s physical and emotional health, one’s ability to prosper materially, and the general well-being of individual persons here on earth.
“As Gems have such vibratory qualities, we may utilize them to not only affect the brain, but also the higher vibrations in the physical body necessary for healthy functioning of all our internal and external organs. Dr. Young and Bruce Tainio of Cheny University in Washington have made the following statements from their research in this regard. ‘The average frequency of the human body during the daytime is between 62 and 68 cycles per second. If it drops below this rate the immune defense system will start to shut down. Cold symptoms appear at 58 cycles, flu at 57, candida at 55, glandular fever at 52, and cancer at 42 cycles per second’.
“Natural (meaning from the earth, which does not include synthetic, man-made material), untreated gemstones, which are repositories of cosmic colors, can restore the pranic energy to the cells of the body, so that its natural vibratory rate and normal health may be regained when it is in a diseased condition. Blue sapphire can tranquilize or have a sedative effect. Emerald can be used as an analgesic. Yellow sapphire has antiseptic properties, and diamond’s ability to stimulate cell growth are just a few examples of how gems can affect the healing process in the body.”
Văstu is the Vedic science of architectural and home arrangement. It made its way through the orient and became known as Feng Shui, which has made particular progress in popularity in the West. However, Vastu is a particular science that deals with the flow of energy through a house or building for the highest benefits. It is not enough to merely arrange a house so it looks nice or that there is a good flow of energy through it. But there is much that depends on the directions in which things are facing or which parts of the building in which certain activities are performed.
To get a little more insight into the Vedic science of Văstu, I have included the following description by Arun Naik, an architect that practices the science and art of Văstu Shăstra. Again, this is taken from the book, “Vedic Culture: The Difference It Can Make in Your Life”:
“The Vedic and the Agamic traditions of ancient India always held that the microcosm is a reflection of the macrocosm. A dwelling is an ecological unit, a microcosm which reflects the Cosmos, the macrocosm. Văstu Shăstra is the applied aspect of this philosophy, a highly refined method of creating a living space which is a miniature replica of the cosmos as perceived by the Vedas. Văstu Shăstra is about emulating the attributes of the Cosmic Space, about bringing the divine sentinels of Cosmic Directions into our homes, about creating Harmony by creating a living environment where the forces of nature are balanced and at peace with each other.
“Sri Aurobindo has said… ‘Indian sacred architecture of whatever date, style or dedication goes back to something timelessly ancient and now outside India almost wholly lost, something which belongs to the past, and yet it goes forward too, though this the rationalistic mind will not easily admit, to something which will return upon us and is already beginning to return, something which belongs to the future.’ (SA, The Renaissance in India)
“There is a prayer is Sama Veda:
May there be peace in the sky, may there be peace in mid region, may there be peace on earth, may there be peace in the waters, may the medicinal plants be peaceful, may the forest be peaceful, may there be peace in gods, may Brahma be peaceful, may all the creation be peaceful, may there be peace and peace only, may such peace come to us.
“Văstu is about creating an Inner Space, the chidakash, where this divine peace can park itself. And it achieves it by creating a harmonious external environment--the bahyakash.
“At a more earthly level, Văstu Shăstra aims at establishing a dynamic balance between Form and Energy so that harmonious conditions are created for the inhabitants. Văstu buildings have harmonious energies and they promote stability, prosperity, happiness, and mental peace for the occupants and owners.
“The principle of Văstu is that the Cosmic World with its order and stern discipline has been built by the gods who occupy all the spaces, from the celestial Space within the Cosmic World to the little spaces in our homes, and even our mental space, chidambaram. Man’s existence in the Cosmic World has a purpose: it must ascend to immortality and godhood; and the gods, having occupied man’s inner Space, strive to create different states in man’s consciousness for his ascension from mortality and low nature to Truth, godhood and immortality. Văstu Shăstra helps the effort of the gods by creating an external space--a dwelling, a place to worship and meditate, or a place to work by applying the same laws which the gods have used to create the Cosmic World. This, indeed, is the ultimate function and the highest objective of Văstu Shăstra.”
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So here we can see how various aspects of the ancient Vedic culture are still applicable today and can provide assistance in our attempts to reach our highest potential, both materially and spiritually. This is the constant and higher nature of the power of the dharma that can be recognized and utilized generation after generation.
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