The Vedas are believed to be the earliest record of the genius of man; but however important to the student of antiquity, it would not be easy to define their moral and spiritual worth, or contribution to the solution of the problems of life. They are said to be four in number, Rik Sama, Yajur, and Atharva; and of these the first, which is the oldest, appears to be but a collection of hymns addressed to a number of gods.
Some of these are indeed unique in their search after the Infinite; and a number of them have all the characteristics of great poetry. But even a modern Indian philosopher is obliged to refer to them as consisting of "half-formed myths or crude allegories, obscure groping or immature compositions", although he also finds "a freshness and simplicity and an intellectual charm, as of the breath of spring or the flowers of the morning, about these first efforts of the human mind to comprehend and express the mystery of the universe".
The Sama Veda is said to be purely liturgical, containing a number of hymns taken from the Rig Veda, and meant to be sung at sacrifices. The Yajur, like the Sama, is also said to serve the same purpose, and to contain a number of sacrificial formulae, even as its name is believed to imply; while the Atharva, which appears to be a later addition and was not included among the original set, is said to contain a number of incantations and charms against evil and disease.
The difficulty of understanding: The student of the Vedas has not found it easy to understand them; and both Indian and foreign scholars have formed their own opinions, ranging from their being but "primeval childlike naive prayer of the Rig Veda" to "allegorical representations of the attributes of the Supreme Deity"; while some would regard them as "sacrificial compositions of a primitive race which attributed great importance to ceremonial rites". At the same time the Rig Veda is said to be "a work representing the thought of successive generations of thinkers, and so contains within it different strata of thought". The late Sri Aurobindo Ghosh was one of the few among recent thinkers who believed that the Vedas are "replete with suggestions of secret doctrines arid mystic philosophies, and looked upon the gods of the hymns as symbols of psychological functions". He was of the opinion that the Rig Veda belongs to the early period of human thought, "when the spiritual and psychological knowledge of the race was concealed, for reasons now difficult to determine, in a veil of concrete and material figures and symbols, which protected the sense from the profane, and revealed it to the initiated. One of the leading principles of the mystics was the sacredness and secrecy of self-knowledge, and the true knowledge of the gods. This wisdom was, they thought, unfit for, perhaps even dangerous to the ordinary human mind, or, in any case, liable to perversion and misuse and loss of virtue, if revealed to vulgar and unpurified spirits. Hence they favoured the existence of an outer worship, effective but imperfect, for the profane, but an inner discipline for the initiate, and clothed their language in words and images which had equally a spiritual sense for the elect and a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers. The Vedic hymns are conceived and constructed on these principles". But Sri Aurobindo Ghosh did not explain how all this could be proved to be true, and modern scholars have not been able to follow his lead.
Divisions of the Vedas: The Vedas are the earliest of the sacred books of the Hindus, and all other works are said to be derived from them. Each Veda is divided into two principal parts, Mantra and Brahmana; and of these the former is said to be a collection of hymns addressed to a number of gods, and is called Samhita; while the latter consists of two parts, Vidhi or directions relating to sacrifices, and Artha-vada or explanation of legends connected with the Mantras. It is said that out of the Brahmana part of the Vedas arose two sections of Vedic literature, Sutras or aphoristic rules relating to the performance of all kinds of sacrifices, and Upanishads, believed to be an exposition of the secret doctrine of the Vedas, and the source of all the great systems of Hindu Philosophy.
Sruti and Smriti: The Vedas, with their Mantra and Brahmana parts, as well as the Upanishads, are called sruti, believed to be revealed knowledge orally communicated to some privileged persons by the Supreme Spirit himself. They are said to have heard and not composed it themselves, and it is for this reason that the works are called sruti or "that which is heard". This was succeeded by a vast body of literature, classified as smrti, for it was believed to have been remembered, as the word signifies; and it is said to include the six Vedangas or "limbs" of the Vedas, the Sutras including those of the six systems of philosophy, the Law-books of Manu, the great Epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the eighteen Purnas, and the Niti-sastras.
The problem: But a great body of this literature is difficult to understand; and even when we are able to get what we believe to be the literal meaning of words, they do not appear to make much sense, or have a bearing on what we should regard as of some moral and spiritual value to human life. The Upanishads indeed contain a considerable body of matter of this kind, and the Mahabharata includes the Bhagavad Gita and a number of discourses on philosophy and religion; but a substantial portion of even these works is difficult to grasp. Nor is it easy to see in what sense the Upanishads can be described as an exposition of the secret doctrine of the Vedas, when we do not know what that doctrine is; and the Vedas themselves, as we understand them, do not appear to justify the claim that they are a revelation of truth made by the Supreme Spirit himself. The Epics and the Puranas have their own problems too. The Ramayana has been described as a Veda; but it is difficult to see in what sense it can be regarded as such; nor is even the life of Rama, believed to be an embodiment of perfection, free from criticism or blame when examined in the light of the text as composed by Valmiki. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, claims to be the fifth or the last of the Vedas; and we are told, in all seriousness, that "that which is in it, is elsewhere; and that which does not occur in it, occurs nowhere else". It would be difficult to conceive of a greater exaggeration if the Epic be as it is commonly understood. The problem of the Purnas is similar too. They are eighteen in number, and are said to be sacred, and to treat of five great topics, the creation of the universe, its destruction and renovation, the genealogy of gods and the patriarchs, the rule of the Manus, and the history of the Solar and the Lunar races; but it would be difficult to conceive of anything more fantastic than what they appear to contain.
The difficulty of understanding the ideas of the ancients is not limited to these works alone; and the Sutras of the six principal systems of Hindu Philosophy are still, for the most part, believed to be unintelligible; and most of our present knowledge of these systems is based on certain commentaries of eminent scholars, rather than their text.
All these books are believed to be sacred, and the orthodox are required to accept without question all that they contain; but no one has, so far, been able to explain in a clear, reasoned, and sustained manner what exactly they teach, or the basis of their claim to be regarded as sacred.
The problem of Hinduism: The problem of Hinduism or the systems of religion that go under that name, is perhaps more difficult still. While there are a large number of gods of the Vedas, the principal deities of the Hindus are three, Brahma, Siva and Vishnu; said to be the great Trinity of the Creator, Destroyer, and Sustainer of the universe; but even this distinction is not based on any exact interpretation of the sacred books. Again, while there are innumerable temples dedicated to both Siva and Vishnu still in existence in the country, the worship of Brahma, believed to be the Creator has all but disappeared. Then we have Jainism and Buddhism too as among the great systems of religion that had their origin in India; but while Jainism still remains, its more liberal counterpart, Buddhism, has but few traces left. Buddha, the reputed founder of Buddhism, is said to be an "incarnation" or embodiment of the idea of Vishnu, the highest of the Hindu triad; and yet his Hinayana school is purely agnostic, and he himself is said to have remained silent when questioned about the existence of God.
The problem of castes, customs and, religious laws, of rites, ceremonies and sacrifices, and of rules, forms and modes of worship still prevalent among the Hindus, is equally intricate; and there are not a few who, finding no rational answer, maintain that Hinduism is but a general name for the life of the people of a country, with a common social order, and held together by common customs, traditions, and laws, culture and forms of worship rather than a clearly defined system of thought and religion.
The great question: The problem, as stated above, is undoubtedly a difficult one, and there are not a few who believe that it cannot be solved. A number of attempts have from time to time been made in the past to answer these questions; but all that has been achieved is either an expression of high, but unsubstantiated, opinion regarding the greatness of the sacred books, or the formation of separate sects with simpler doctrine and more clearly definable creed. The modern thinker appears to have reconciled himself to the general decline of faith as an inevitable consequence of the scientific spirit of the present day; and the only religion he can accept is that which can transform science itself into philosophy, and reason into faith. And the great question is, can there be such a system of religion? And have the sacred books of the Hindus any contribution to make to the formation of such a one?