The Veda, Not Just Another Sectarian Religious Book

Why the Vedas are exceptional as a source of valid knowledge.

Śrī Sarasvatī, the “goddess of education,” is the consort of Lord Brahmā and the deity whose grace is invoked by those who study and recite the Veda

In a previous article, Hinduism was clearly defined as the religious & spiritual traditions that derive their authority from the Vedas. We unequivocally stated that followers of Hinduism at least theoretically revere the authority of the Veda, and that this is the distinguishing characteristic of Hinduism in contrast to other Indian-origin religions such as Buddhism or Jainism, as well as Semitic religions like Christianity or Islam. All religious terms require a clear and consistent definition in order to be useful in discussion, and Hinduism is no exception. By defining Hinduism with respect to its Vedic origins, one has a useful working definition which sets it apart from superficially similar but philosophically incompatible belief-systems.

Some modern Hindus may find this point troubling. They would argue that since religious scriptures are known to be authored by human beings, their scriptures will reflect their sectarian, ethnic, and cultural biases. Thus, accepting the historical definition of Hinduism as Vedic religion makes it just another sectarian religion, with all the exclusivism that sectarianism implies.

It is certainly a valid point that sectarianism can obscure truth, the seeking of which is the core of the religious experience. The entities to be known by religion, namely God, the souls, and the worlds attained after leaving the body are all suprasensory in nature, being not graspable by the default human senses. The authority of an authored text is always suspect because of the limitations of an author, foremost of which are his limited senses, his susceptibility to mislead and being mislead. An insider to a religious tradition could argue that the author is divinely inspired, or is God Himself, as is the case with most religions. However, this requires additional assumptions about the author’s credentials which are not themselves self-evident. Hence, the objective and non-sectarian authority of an authored religious text is always suspect.

A distinguish characteristic of the Veda, however, is that it has no author, human or divine. This is a cardinal principle of Vedānta, and it is broadly accepted by scholars representing various orthodox traditions. Not only is it the view point of Hindu scholars, but it follows literally from the Veda itself. The Ṛg Veda Saṃhitā directs one to praise the Deity with the eternal words of the Veda. [1] The Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad speaks of the enlightenment of Brahmā and the gifting of the already-existing Veda at the beginning of the creation. [2] The Kaṭha Upaniṣad refers to itself as an eternal story. [3] These statements indicate that the Veda existed at all times and is therefore without beginning and eternal, from which the principle of apauruṣeyatva (unauthoredness) follows logically. A book that is authored has a definite beginning in time, and conversely something that is eternal, or without beginning, was never authored.

Now an objection may be raised that the Veda had an author or authors, but that he/they deliberately omitted any reference to himself/themselves in order to mislead people into thinking that the Veda is author-less, and hence authoritative.  There are several reasons why this objection is illogical. First, we do not normally see in human nature that writers create great works of literary value and then neglect to take credit for their work. Sometimes, a writer may use a pen-name to make his contributions anonymous, but in such cases it is still clear that the work was authored by someone. Second, the Veda was always known as an un-authored body of literature by ancient Hindus. There was no tradition, Hindu or otherwise in which the Veda was thought of as authored, refuting the idea that they once had an author whose identity was simply lost in time. Finally, there are well-regarded Sanskrit literatures in the Hindu canon that are well known to be authored. The Mahābhārata, which extols itself as the fifth veda, is well-known to be the authored work of Śrī Vedavyāsa, and the Rāmāyaṇa, which enjoys similar praise, is known to be the authored work of Śrī Vālmīki. Why did these sages not omit their names and try to pass their works off as un-authored? Thus, the burden of proof is on those who assert authorship to provide evidence for their claim.

Yet another objection may be raised that the Ṛṣis associated with the various portions of the Veda are actually their authors. This objection is also not valid for the following reasons. First, if the Veda intended for us to believe that the Ṛṣis were their authors, then they would contradict themselves when they describe themselves as beginning-less, since authored texts have a beginning in time. Second, the tradition does not remember the Ṛṣis as authors, but rather as seers of the truth.

‘If they were composed by the seers they (the latter) would be called “Mantra-kartas” which means “those who ‘created’ the Mantras”. But as a matter of fact, the rsis are called “Mantra-drastas”, those who “saw ” them. [4]

These objections would also refute the idea that God is author of the Veda.

It is not at all unreasonable to postulate the existence of un-authored religious scripture. For example, Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion were only formulated in the 17th-18th centuries, yet they always existed. No one argues that they did not exist prior to Newton’s birth. Newton was not the author of, nor did he create, the laws of motion. He merely “discovered” them, or in other words he came to understand the relationships which governed motion and published the knowledge for the benefit of the scientific community. In the same way, the Ṛṣis, being discoverers of the Vedic truths, heard them in their form as mantras  and passed them on, unchanged, to future generations. It is not just that they discovered the concept and put them down in words, because that would make them authors and the Vedas would then have a beginning. Rather, it is traditionally understood that they heard the truth in the form of the mantras which we have constituting the Veda today. It is not just that the truth is eternal, but the form in which they were perceived by Ṛṣis as spiritual sound was taken in and passed on.

The significance of apauruṣeyatva cannot be understated. Because no one, not even God,  authored the Vedas, the Vedas give independent verification about God. Were it not so, the use of a scripture authored by God to tell us who God is, would result in circular logic. That is avoided by accepting the Veda as unauthored. It also follows from unauthoredness that the Veda is not subject to the biases of human authors. Nor can it be subject to the limitations of human perception or cognition, because human authors, who by nature are of finite intelligence and perceptive abilities, did not create them. Thus, the Vedas are not sectarian scriptures intended for a specific time. Rather, they represent the objective laws of spirituality that are meant for everyone at all times. This is how traditional Hindus understood the Vedas, and why they place so much emphasis on the Veda as the standard of evidence in religious discourse.


[1] Ṛg Veda Saṃhitā 8.75.6:

tasmai nūnamabhidyave vācā virūpa nityayā |
vṛṣṇe codasva suṣṭutim || RV 8.75.6 ||

“O multiform, may you with voice that ceases not, address your praise to this showered of blessings, who shines at early morn.” (Ṛg Veda 8.76.6, swami satya prakash saraswati)

[2] Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.18:

yo brahmāṇaṃ vidadhāti pūrvaṃ yo via vedāṃśca prahiṇoti tasmai |
taṃ hi devaṃ ātmabuddhiprakāśaṃ mumukṣurvai śaraṇamahaṁ prapadye || SvU 6.18 ||
niṣkalaṃ niṣkriyam śāntaṃ niravadyaṃ nirañjanam |
amṛtasya paraṃ setuṃ dagdhendanamivānalam || SvU 6.19 ||

“He who at the beginning of creation projected Brahmā, who delivered the Vedas unto him, who constitutes the supreme bridge of immortality, who is the partless, free from actions, tranquil, faultless, taintless and resembles the fire that has consumed its fuel – seeking liberation I go for refuge to that Effulgent One, whose light turns the understanding towards the Atman.” (Śvetāśvataropaniṣad 6.18-19, translated by Swami Tyagisananda)

[3] Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.3.16:

nāciketamupākhyānaṃ mṛtyuproktaṃ sanātanam |
uktvā śrutvā ca medhāvī brahmaloke mahīyate || KU 1.3.16 ||

“Narrating and hearing this eternal story of Nachiketas told by Death, the intelligent man attains glory in the world of Brahman.” (Kaṭhopaniṣad 1.3.16, translated by Vidyavachaspati V. Panoli)

[4] These are from the discourses of the Kanchi Swami of Shri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.

[5] A more thorough discussion of apauruṣeyatva, the arguments in favor of it, and the arguments against those who critique it, can be found here.

Hinduism – A Meaningful Definition

How should we define “Hinduism” when we want to have a meaningful discussion about it?

At different times and places, self-identified “Hindus” have argued that Hinduism teaches:

-belief in many “gods” as well as belief in one Supreme God,

-that there are no mandatory rules and regulations on behavior, and yet moral regulations known collectively as dharma are important and must be followed,

-the doctrine that everyone is equal, and yet there are differences between people due to their different karmas, and

-that spiritual truth is taught in the Vedas and Vedic literatures like the Bhagavad-gītā, and yet the conflicting, non-Vedic beliefs of other religions must be respected and accommodated.

These contradictory statements may attract a variety of casual believers, but they are confusing to the sincere seeker. Is Hinduism really self-contradictory, or does the problem lie in the way different people define “Hinduism?” Examined objectively, one has to admit that there is a tendency to confuse different concepts that are each referred to as “Hinduism.” Specifically, the term “Hinduism” has been used to describe (1) religious traditions originating from, or at least theoretically accepting the authority of, an accepted corpus of canonical texts in the form of the veda-s or some other Vedic literature, and often having flourished well before the Age of British Imperialism, and (2) relatively recent sects of modern origin whose founders mix elements of traditional Hinduism with non-Vedic beliefs and emphasize pluralism and personal intuition over doctrinal consistency or objective authority.

The differences between these two concepts can be understood by examining their linguistic origin and historical usage. The term “Hindu” originated in ancient times when Persians, trying to describe the people living in the region of the Sindhu river, mispronounced the “s” as “h” owing to the limited phonemes of their language. [1] To them, the “Hindus” were the people living in the area of the Sindhu River, and the word “Hinduism” came to refer to the religious traditions of these Hindus. [2] These ancient Indians worshiped iconic representations of various deities, performed elaborate religious sacrifices, followed an hereditary class system, and had religious beliefs based at varying levels on Sanskrit scriptures known as the veda-s and their accessory literatures, the Itihāsas, the Purāṇas, and the Dharma-śāstras. Thus, in this particular usage, “Hinduism” referred to the world-view and religious traditions of the Vedas and other literatures upholding the Vedic authority.

However, the modern layman use of the term “Hinduism” encompasses the less orthodox and more heterogeneous beliefs of modern descendants of Vedic Hinduism. These modern beliefs were often inconsistent with the Vedic tradition because they had been influenced by foreign ideologies. The British occupation of India from the 18th-20th centuries resulted in the forced introduction of Christianity with its ideologically xenophobic exclusivism. [3] The technologically, less-sophisticated Hindus of that time were “educated” in schools developed by their Christian overlords to believe that their Hindu culture was primitive while European Christianity was the path to civilization. [4,5] Lacking the firm, intellectual conviction of the orthodoxy, these modern Hindus were ill-prepared to reconcile their religious beliefs with their resentment of Christian exclusivism, the egalitarian charm of Western humanism, the inevitable modern tendency towards materialism, and the existing diversity of various Vedic and neo-Vedic Hindu traditions. Not surprisingly, they re-imagined Hinduism as a religion that taught objective, spiritual truth yet excluded no contradictory belief, insisted on the equality of everyone while reinventing and rationalizing caste, downplayed the importance of regulated behavior while paying lip service to the significance of dharma, and simultaneously accepted polytheistic and monotheistic points of view as valid. [6]

Thus, Hinduism in its original usage referred to religious traditions of ancient origin derived from the Vedas and/or Vedic texts like the Itihāsas. Hinduism in its more current usage includes neo-Vedic traditions which incorporate non-Vedic points of view that were a response to Christian imperialism.  Herein lies the contradiction. One usage is inherently conservative and internally consistent, while the other usage is heterogeneous in scope and includes religion traditions that are heterogeneous in their origins. Added to this confusion is the fact that many people who identify themselves as “Hindus” may have have beliefs and practices that are not “Hinduism” in the Vedic sense. [7] They are Hindus in a cultural sense but not in a strictly religious one. However, they may also rationalize their non-adherence to Hinduism in the name of Hinduism, a phenomenon that is particularly characteristic of Neo-Hinduism as well shall see in a future article.

Since the broader usage of the term “Hinduism” is so ambiguous, defining it is problematic. For example, can one’s beliefs be characterized as “Hinduism” if one engages in behavior that is forbidden in the Dharma-śāstras? Is it sensible to characterize one’s beliefs as “Hinduism” if said beliefs are clearly contradicted by the Vedas? Can a school of thought be included within the “Hinduism” umbrella if its founders explicitly reject the authority of the Vedas? If one answers in the affirmative, then at what point does something objectively cease to be Hinduism?

These and other, similar questions point to an unmistakable conclusion: Hinduism, like any other religious term, is not whatever one whimsically deems it to be. Hinduism refers to the religious traditions that derive their authority in some way from the Vedas. To be considered a form of “Hinduism,” a tradition’s followers must at least theoretically accept the authority of the Veda. This is the only definition that is logical and consistent with the term’s historical usage.

References & Notes:

1. ‘The word Hindu is derived (through Persian) from the Indo-Aryan/Sanskrit word Sindhu, the Indo-Aryan name for the Indus River in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent (modern day Pakistan and Northern India). According to Gavin Flood, “The actual term ‘hindu’ first occurs as a Persian geographical term for the people who lived beyond the river Indus (Sanskrit: Sindhu)”. The term ‘Hindu’ then was a geographical term and did not refer to a religion. Among the earliest known records of ‘Hindu’ with connotations of religion may be in the 7th-century CE Chinese text Record of the Western Regions by Xuanzang, and 14th-century Persian text Futuhu’s-salatin by ‘Abd al-Malik Isami. Thapar states that the word Hindu is found as heptahindu in Avesta – equivalent to Rigvedic sapta sindhu, while hndstn (pronounced Hindustan) is found in a Sasanian inscription from the 3rd century CE, both of which refer to parts of northwestern South Asia. The Arabic term al-Hind referred to the people who live across the River Indus. This Arabic term was itself taken from the pre-Islamic Persian term Hindū, which refers to all Indians. By the 13th century, Hindustan emerged as a popular alternative name of India, meaning the “land of Hindus”. The term Hindu was later used occasionally in some Sanskrit texts such as the later Rajataranginis of Kashmir (Hinduka, c. 1450) and some 16th- to 18th-century Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts including Chaitanya Charitamrita and Chaitanya Bhagavata. These texts used it to contrast Hindus from Muslims who are called Yavanas (foreigners) or Mlecchas (barbarians), with the 16th-century Chaitanya Charitamrita text and the 17th century Bhakta Mala text using the phrase “Hindu dharma”. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that European merchants and colonists began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus. The term Hinduism, then spelled Hindooism, was introduced into the English language in the 18th-century to denote the religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions native to India.’

2. Of course, the term “Hinduism” was not likely used by the ancient Persians, but the point remains that the English construction of HinduISM implies a set of religious beliefs. It is undisputed that this construction is based on the ancient usage of the word “Hindu” to denote the ancient people living in the Indian Subcontinent, and that these people had religious beliefs based on the veda-s and other sacred literature based on the veda. Therefore, “Hinduism” clearly refers to those religious beliefs.

3. The Bible, John 3:16-18, 36 is quite clear on the doctrine of Christian exclusivism: “For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For god did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. He who believes in him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten son of god. He who believes in the son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the son shall not see life, but the wrath of god abides on him.” To Hindus, the idea that one prophet holds the exclusive key to salvation, such that having no belief in him leads to eternal damnation and the wrath of God, is simply not logical or consistent with a Supreme Being who is fair and impartial.

4. The creation of the modern Indian educational system was the brainchild of Thomas Babington Macaulay, a member of the governing Supreme Council of India. Far from being an impartial scholar with a passion for uncovering truth, Macaulay’s pro-European bias and agenda was anything but objective. “Macaulay held western culture in high esteem and saw his undertaking as a “civilizing mission“: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population,” Macaulay declared.

5. More on the father of the Indian educational system at,_1st_Baron_Macaulay: “In his view, Macaulay divided the world into civilised nations and barbarism, with Britain representing the high point of civilisation. In his Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, he asserted, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

6. See for one such example. Swami Vivekananda, an 18th-century Indian monk and leader of a newer sect of Hinduism, famously claimed that: “By the study of different religions we find that in essence they are one. When I was a boy, this skepticism reached me, and it seemed for a time as if I must give up all hope of religion. But fortunately for me I studied the Christian religion, the Mohammedan, the Buddhistic, and others, and what was my surprise to find that the same foundation principles taught by my religion were also taught by all religions… We see, therefore, that if one religion is true, all others must be true. There are differences in non-essentials, but in essentials they are all one.” Note the statement is a non-sequitur. One religion being true does not imply that other religions are also true, and as far as foundation principles are concerned, they are most certainly not the same. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore their differences, but most likely we will cover this subject in a future writing.

7. This is not dissimilar to the way many Christians and Jews identify themselves as such even when they are not strict practitioners of Christianity or Judaism. Like the terms “Christian” and “Jew,” the term “Hindu” is also a cultural term by convention, but this point may be lost on non-Hindus trying to understanding “Hinduism.”