Are the Vedas incompatible with the ideals of Bhagavatism and Bhagavad Gita?

The Vasudeva cult also known as Bhagavatism was one of the reform movements started against the domination of the Brahmins and the sacrifices performed by them. Dr. Bhandarkar holds the opinion that the cult of Vasudeva was formed from the same intellectual ferment which produced Buddhism and Jainism, but it was a religious reform. It repudiated slaughter of animals and the inefficiency of the sacrificial ritual and advocated the path of devotion as the way of salvation. Like Buddhism and Jainism, it was the natural reaction against the barren excesses of the Vedas. This cult which was flourishing in the fourth B.C. was essentially a Kshatriya movement and was not much favoured by the Brahmins.1

The Vedic Brahmins had contempt towards the Bhagavatas (who were also referred as Satvatas2 and Pancaratris3) as they worshiped images and lived upon the offerings for initiation and those made to temple gods. They did not perform the Vedic duties and had no relationship with the Brahmins and so they (Bhagavatas) were not regarded as Brahmins by the Vedic Brahmins. It was considered that even by the sight of a man who takes to worship as a means to livelihood is polluted and should be purified by proper purificatory ceremonies. The Vedic Brahmins also regarded the Pancharatra texts adopted by the Bhagavatas as invalid and non-Vedic.4

Even dharma as interpreted by the Vedas and the Bhagavatas differed. Dharma according to Bhagavata Purana (the devotional literature of the Bhagavatas) consists in the worship of God without any ulterior motive- a worship performed with a perfect sincerity of heart by men who are kindly disposed towards all and who have freed themselves from all feeling of jealousy. This interpretation of dharma by the Bhagavatas was superior to the Vedic definition of dharma which could produce only sense gratification of various kinds.5

Hence Medhatithi, the commentator on Manu Smriti discards not only Buddhism and Jainism as being outside the true Vedic dharma but also the followers of Pancaratra (Bhagavatas) and the Pasupatas as well. He held that their (Bhagavatas) teachings are directly contrary to the mandates of the Vedas and as an illustration he points out that the Bhagavatas considered all kinds of injury to living beings to be sinful, which directly contradicts the Vedic sanctions to sacrifice animals at particular sacrifices. According to him injury to living beings is not itself sinful but only such injury is sinful as is prohibited by the Vedic injunctions. So the customs and practices of all systems of religion which are not based on the teaching of the Vedas are to be discarded as not conforming to dharma.6

For the Bhagavatas devotion and divine favour played an important role, with caste and gender becoming insignificant. A loving God is all merciful and cannot show discrimination among his devotees. In Bhagavata Purana (3:32:2-7) Kapila says that while a person engaged in pravritti dharma, that is worshipping gods and forefathers with sacrificial ceremonies will be born again and again; whereas one who is engaged in nivritti dharma, that is worshipping Hari with devotion and surrendering all his action to Him will merge with the Universal Consciousness. This concept was incompatible to the religious concept professed by the Vedas where through the intercession of the Brahmin priest people used to invoke the blessings of Gods by performing yagas. The worship of images was a result of the growth of the doctrine of devotion. But the practice of image worship is manifestly non-Vedic and hence resulted in the conflict between the Vedic people and the image worshippers (Bhagavatas).7 Another reason for the Vedic Brahmins to denounce the Bhagavatas was due to the latter initiating and admitting within their sect even women and sudras.8

The fact that image worship was a non-Vedic concept is further testified by Manu’s injunction against non-Brahmins to read the Vedas but not against image worshipping. Hence while we find non-Brahmin priest performing pujas in temples, we do not find non-Brahmins performing Vedic yagas and homas.

The above facts show that the Bhagavata sect was not only inclusive and egalitarian but had ahimsa and devotion as its core theosophical concepts. The catholicity of this sect is testified by the Besnagar column inscription (Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh) which shows how even the Greeks were converted to the Bhagavata religion.

Though the spiritual concepts of the Bhagavatas were far superior to the Vedic people, being a minority sect they did not dare to revile the orthodox Vedic people.9 It should be noted that theistic school of Vedanta like Vishishtadvaita and Dwaita were much influenced by the Bhagavata theosophy, with the former regarding the Pancaratra literature as being as authoritative as the Vedas.10

 Bhagavad Gita repudiates Vedic ceremonies

In chapter 3, verse 19 of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to do work without any expectation of the results. But all the Vedic mantras and ceremonies are done with a purpose of pleasing demi-gods and obtaining boons from them; which is nothing but gross materialism. In chapter 18 verse 66, Sri Krishna says that he would absolve all sins if one dedicates all his actions to him and surrenders to him. Does not this verse signify the irrelevance of performing Vedic ceremonies? Repeatedly the Bhagavad-Gita says that worshipping demi-gods and performing the ceremonies as mentioned in the Vedas bring no fruit.11

 Interpolation in the Bhagavad Gita

Though we find verses in Bhagavad Gita against Vedic rites, how come there are verses which explicitly support the Vedic concept of caste exclusiveness? For instance in chapter four, verse 13 and in chapter 18, verses 41-44 we have references to the establishment of the four castes and the duties allotted by God. In the duties prescribed for the Brahmin caste includes study of Vedas and performance of Vedic sacrifices. But in chapter eight, verse 28 it is said that through devotional service all the benefits which one gets by studying Vedas, performing sacrifices and giving charities is attained. If by devotion all the benefits can be attained why there is a need to study Vedas and perform sacrifices? These types of contradictory verses make one suspect whether verses 41-44 are being interpolated. This type of interpolations had taken place in many Indian classical works including Ramayana. Jnanapeeta awardee and Kannada writer Masti Venkatesa Iyengar writes that the current versions of the Ramayana have many portions so interpolated which even the orthodox schools of thought in India admit. Especially so is the seventh book, called Uttara Kanda, which describes the rule of Rama and the exile of Sita on the ground of slander by the people of Ayodhya.12 It is in the Uttara Kanda we have the story of Rama killing Shambuka a shudra ascetic. By adding this story Lord Rama was depicted in a bad light.

The probable reason for these interpolations was due to the fact that after a long struggle with the Kshatriyas, the Vedic Brahmins had acquired the exclusive rights to officiate at public ceremonies which had been their main source of income. But the teachings of the Upanishads had reduced the Vedas to that of spiritual childhood level.13 The high spiritual ideals and the egalitarian concepts espoused by the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism, Jainism and Bhagavata religion further reduced the significance of performing Vedic ceremonies. The final blow came when Shankaracharya established the supremacy of the Vedanta (Upanishads) by defeating the Mimamsakaras (who were the staunch supporters of the Vedic rites).14 Hence to preserve their dominance at the social level the Vedic Brahmins interpolated verses in the Bhagavad Gita so as to make believe the readers that God himself had created the four castes and allotted duties to them.

There is an unquestioned belief that the Vedas form the philosophical basis for Sanatana Dharma. But the various paths (knowledge, action and devotion) which lead us to the realization of the Ultimate Truth are actually found in the ideals of Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavatism. No doubt the Vedas are of great antiquity; nevertheless leaving sentiments apart, it is high time to critically evaluate the objectives and relevance of the Vedas to the present times.

 References

  1. N.Luniya- Life and Culture in Ancient India, Lakshmi Narain Agarwal, Agra, p.213
  2. “The Satvatas are counted by Manu as a low caste people born from outcast Vaishyas and not entitled to the holy thread. The Satvatas were of course regarded as the same as Bhagavatas, and their chief duties consisted of worshipping in Vishnu temples by the order of the king. They also repaired or constructed temples and images for their living and were therefore regarded as outcast.” Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- II, Cambridge University Press, 1952, p.546
  3. Followers of Pancharatra texts (the Agamic literature of the Vaishnavas) which contain details about image building and image worship. According to V.Ponniah the Vedic rituals are propitiatory and sacrificial, whereas the agamic rituals consist in devout worship of and personal communion with God. (The Saiva Siddhanta- Theory of Knowledge, p.11)
  4. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- III, Cambridge University Press, 1952, p.15
  5. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- IV, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p.10
  6. Ibid, p.7
  7. Surendranath Dasgupta- cit, vol- III, p.19
  8. Ibid,pp:19,20
  9. Ibid,p.20
  10. Ibid,p.18
  11. Bhagavad-Gita– chapter 2 and verses 42, 43 and 43 and chapter 9 verse 21
  12. Masti Venkatesa Iyengar- The Poetry of Valmiki, Jeevana Karyalaya, Bangalore. 1940, p. 14
  13. S.Srinivas- Is Correlation of Upanishads with the Vedas justified? The Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol.105:4 (2014),pp:1-9
  14. G.Narahari in his work Atman in Pre-Upanisadic Vedic Literature has attempted to show that the seeds of the Upanishadic thoughts are contained in the Rig-Veda. He writes (in page-231) that in many of the Upanishads we come across liturgical matter and glorification of sacrifices and as example says that the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains rituals connected with the Ashvamedha ceremony. If the tenets of Upanishads had not been opposed to the Vedic sacrifices, why would had Sri Shankara entered into a debate with Mandana Misra, a champion of the karma marga for days together and convinced him of the futility of sacrifices? If at all there are references to the glorification of sacrifices, it must be interpolations by people with vested interests.

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