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What are the Vedas?



The following lessons are designed to give the reader a clear and concise understanding of what is Vedic literature and what are the relationships between the various scriptures within the sanaatana dharma. Many times we have a general idea of common words such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Itihasas, etc., but we do not actually understand the various concepts clear enough to relate them to each other, nor do we have a deep enough understanding to explain their position to others. This simple study course will give one the necessary knowledge to understand what books we are following and how the various books inter-relate with each other. If anyone is serious about studying this course, we invite you to answer the questions at the end of each lesson and email them to us.

Lesson One (Vedas)

Veda means knowledge. The original knowledge are the teachings of the Vedas. In the conditioned state our knowledge is subjected to many deficiencies. There are four defects that a conditioned soul has: committing mistakes, subject to illusion, cheating propensity and imperfect senses. These deficiencies make us unfit for having perfect knowledge. Therefore we accept the Vedas as they are.

Vedas are apauruseya, which means they are not compilations of human knowledge. Vedic knowledge comes from the spiritual world, from Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the beginning the first living creature was Brahma. He received the Vedic knowledge from Krishna.

Vedas are compared to desire tree because they contain all things knowable by man. They deal with mundane necessities as well as spiritual realization. Above and beyond all departments of knowledge there are specific directions for spiritual realization. Regulated knowledge involves a gradual raising of the living entity to the spiritual platform, through varna (brahmana - intellectual, ksatriya - ruler, vaisya - merchant, sudra - worker) and asrama (brahmacarya - student, grhastha - family, vanaprastha - retired, sannyasa - mendicant). The highest spiritual realization is knowledge that the Personality of Godhead is the reservoir of all pleasures, spiritual tastes.

Formerly there was only the Veda of the name Yajur. The sacrifices mentioned in the Vedas were means by which the peopleFs occupations according to their orders of life (namely brahmacarya, grhastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa) could be purified. To simpli fy the process and make them more easily performable, Vyasadeva (the empowered incarnation of Krishna) divided the one Veda into four, Rg (prayers), Yajur (hymns for oblations), Sama (same prayers and hymns in meters for singing), Atharva (body/world mainte nance and destruction) in order to expand them among men.

Thus the original source of knowledge is the Vedas. There are no branches of knowledge either mundane or transcendental, which do not belong to the original texts of the Vedas. They have simply been developed into different branches. They were originally rendered by great seers. In other words, the Vedic knowledge broken into different branches by different disciplic successions (known as sakhas) has been distributed all over the world. No one, therefore, can claim independent knowledge beyond the Vedas.

The texts of the Vedas are known as Samhitas. Within these Samhitas there are portions known as Mantras, which contain prayers in the form of potent sound compounds revealed to great seers for different purposes. In the Vedic civilization three orders of life lived in the forests. Only grhasthas inhabited the cities. The regulated knowledge for living in the city, is revealed in the books known as Brahmanas, whereas the regulated knowledge for living in the forest is revealed in the books known as Aranyakas.



1.What are Vedas?

2.What are four defects of conditioned souls?

3.Why should one accept Vedas as they are?

4.What is the subject matter of Vedas and what is the purpose of it?

5.What is varnasrama?

6.What are the divisions of the Vedas? Who divided them? Why were they divided?

7.Why is it that no one can claim independent knowledge beyond the Vedas?

8.Describe the different sections of the Vedas.


Lesson Two (Sruti, Smrti, and Nyaya)


There are three different sources of vedic knowledge, called prasthana-traya. The Upanisads are known as sruti-prasthana, the scriptures following the principles of six limbs vedic knowledge (Vedangas) as well as Mahabharata, Bhagavad-gita, and Puranas a re known as smrti- prasthana and Vedanta-sutras which present the vedic knowledge on the basis of logic and arguments is known as nyaya-prasthana. All scientific knowledge of transcendence must be supported by sruti, smrti and a sound logical basis (nyaya ). Smrti and nyaya always confirm that which is said in the sruti.

Vedic injunctions are known as sruti. From the original Veda Samhitas up to the Upanisads are classified as sruti. The additional supplementary presentations of these principles as given by the great sages are known as smrti. They are considered as eviden ce for vedic principles. Understanding the ultimate goal of life is ascertained in the Vedanta-sutras by legitimate logic and argument concerning cause and effect.

There are six aspects of knowledge in the Vedas known as Vedangas:

Siksa - phonetic science

Vyakarana - grammar

Nirukti - context (conclusive meaning)

Candas - meter

Jyotis - time science (astronomy & astrology)

Kalpa - rituals

The seers who have realized these aspects of knowledge from the Vedas, have composed sutras (short but potent phrases which convey a lot of meanings) on each Vedanga. Kalpa-sutras are of four categories, viz., srouta (collective sacrifices), grhya (fami ly rituals), dharma (occupational duties) and sulba (building of sacrificial fireplaces, altars etc.).

According to the different levels of conditioned consciousness there are instructions in the Vedas for worship of different controllers, with the aim of reaching different destinations and enjoying different standards of sense enjoyment. Agamas (emanated scriptures) are books which are classified into five for this purpose:

energy - Sakti - Sakta Agamas

visible source (Sun) - Surya - Soura Agamas

controller - Ganapati - Ganapatya Agamas

destroyer - Siva - Saiva Agamas

ultimate source - Vishnu - Vaikhanasa Agamas


For those who are below standard for vedic purificatory process, Lord Siva gave the Tantra sastras. These have two general classifications, right and left. While the right aspect contains regulations for purification for those who are grossly engaged in meat eating, intoxication and illicit sex, the left aspect contains low class activities like black magic etc.

From the point of view of common human activities sense gratification is the basis of material life. To cater to this aim, there are three paths mentioned in the Vedas:

The karma-kanda path involves fruitive activities to gain promotion to better planets. Using the methodology from the first five Vedangas, the Kalpa-sutras explain this path.

Upasana-kanda involves worshiping different controllers for promotion to their planets. The Agamas explain this path.

Jnana-kanda involves realizing the Absolute truth in impersonal feature for the purpose of becoming one . The Upanisads explain this path.

Though these paths are all from the Vedas, and the Vedas do explain them, one should not think that that is all the Vedas have. The real purpose of the Vedas is to gradually push one in the path of self realization to the point of surrender in devotion al service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna.



1.What is prasthana-traya?

2.What is the difference between sruti, smrti and nyaya? What are the vedic books under this classification?

3.What are Vedangas?

4.Describe the four divisions of Kalpa-sutras.

5.How many are the paths mentioned in the Vedas? What are they? Which books explain them?

6.What is the real purpose of the Vedas?



Lesson Three (Upanisads and Darsanas)

(Vedanta and six systems of philosophy)


Upanisad means receiving knowledge while sitting near the teacher. These are conversations between self realized souls and their students on the subject matter of Absolute truth. The philosophical aspects of all the important processes and practices of k nowledge (known as vidyas) that are given in the Vedas are discussed in the Upanisads. Veda means knowledge and anta means end. Upanisads are known as Vedanta, end of knowledge.

In the Upanisads the description is more or less negation of the material conception of everything, up to the Supreme Lord. It is very important to note that there is no denial of the spiritual, absolute, transcendental conception in the Upanisads. The purpose of the Upanisads is to philosophically establish the personal feature of the Absolute Truth as transcendental to material names, forms, qualities and actions.

There are 108 Upanisads, as accepted by disciplic succession. Among them the following are considered as topmost:


1) Isa 2) Kena 3) katha 4) Prasna 5) Mundaka 6) Mandukya 7) Taittiriya

8) Aitareya 9) Chandogya 10) Brhad-aranyaka 11) Svetasvatara


Darsana means, sight or vision. In the Vedanta philosophy, the first question is, what is the source of everything? There are philosophers who saw different stages of the original source, and explained philosophy according to their vision. These are known as darsanas. They are also known as sad-darsanas (six systems of philosophy).

The six philosophical treatises are:


Nyaya propounded by Gautama

Vaisesika propounded by Kanada

Sankhya propounded by Kapila

Yoga propounded by Patanjali

Purva (karma) Mimamsa propounded by Jaimini

Uttara (brahma) Mimamsa propounded by Vyasa


Nyaya, the philosophy of logic, maintains that the atom is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

Vaisesika, philosophy of specialised logic, maintains that the combination of atoms is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

Sankhya, philosophy of analytical study, maintains that the material nature is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

Yoga, philosophy of mystic perfections, maintains that universal consciousness is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

Purva (karma) mimamsa, philosophy of actions and reactions, maintains that fruitive activities are the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

Uttara (brahma) mimamsa has two different categories:

The impersonalists maintain that the impersonal Brahman effulgence is the cause of the cosmic manifestation.

After studying the six philosophical theses, Vyasadeva completely summarized them all in his Vedanta-sutra darsana: The Absolute Truth is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the cause of all causes.

Anyone who wants to establish his own philosophy certainly cannot explain any scripture according to the principle of direct interpretation. Among the six kinds of philosophers up to the impersonalist brahma-mimamsa philosophers, none really cares for th e Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the cause of all causes. They are always busy refuting the philosophical theories of others and establishing their own.

Nyaya and Vaisesika philosophers by accepting atoms as source have rejected the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The Sankhya philosophers do not accept the Supreme Personality of Godhead, because after scrutinizingly analysing the material elements, they have come to the conclusion that material nature is the cause of everything.

The Yoga philosophers imagine a form of the Absolute Truth within many forms, and thus do not give any information about the transcendental Personality of Godhead.

Purva (karma) mimamsa philosophers maintain that if there is a God, He is subjected to our fruitive activities. Therefore they do not see any need to become devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The impersonalist Uttara (brahma) mimamsa philosophers say that everything is an illusion. Headed by philosophers like Astavakra, they stress the impersonal Brahman effulgence as the cause of everything, rejecting the transcendental Personality of Godh ead, who is also the source of that Brahman effulgence.

Shrila Vyasadeva wrote the Vedanta-sutras and taking the essence of all vedic literature, established the supremacy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.


1.What are Upanisads? What do they teach?

2.How many are the Upanisads? List the most important ones. (Do you know the name of the Upanisad that Shrila Prabhupada translated and given purports to?)

3.What is the actual purpose of the Upanisads?

4.What are darsanas? Name the six darsanas.

5.What do the six systems of philosophy establish as cause of cosmic manifestation?

6.Explain how the six systems of philosophy are all atheistic.

7.What system of philosophy will you classify Vyasadeva_s Vedanta-sutras in? Why are Vedanta-sutras the complete Vedanta Philosophy?

Lesson Four (Bhasyas)

(Commentaries on Vedanta Sutra)

Vyasadeva is an incarnation of Krishna. He compiled Vedanta-sutra to enable one to understand the Absolute Truth through infallible logic and argument.

Veda means knowledge, and anta means the end. In other words, proper understanding of the ultimate purpose of the Vedas is called Vedanta knowledge.

A sutra is a code that expresses the essence of all knowledge in a minimum of words. It must be universally applicable and faultless in its linguistic presentation; this is the definition of sutra according to Vayu and Skanda Puranas.

Knowledge which is given in the Vedanta-sutra is supported by the Upanisads. Vedanta-sutras are known as nyaya-prasthana, legitimate logic and argument concerning cause and effect giving the conclusive understanding of the sruti-prasthana, the Upanisads.

Vedanta-sutra, which consists of codes revealing the method of understanding Vedic knowledge, is the concise form of all Vedic knowledge. It begins with the words "athato brahma-jijnasa" ( "now is the time to inquire about the Absolute Truth"). The hum an form of life is especially meant for this purpose, and therefore the Vedanta-sutra very concisely explains the human mission. According to the great dictionary compiler ( Kosakara), Hemacandra, Vedanta refers to the purport of the Upanisads and the Brahmana portion of the Vedas.

The Vedanta-sutras are also known by the following different names:


(1) Brahma-sutra, (2) Saririka-sutra, (3) Vyasa-sutra,

(4) Badarayana-sutra, (5) Uttara-mimamsa, (6) Vedanta-darsana.


The Vedanta-sutra consists of four chapters. The first two chapters discuss the relationship of the living entity with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is known as sambandha-jnana, or the knowledge of relationship.

The third chapter describes how one can act in his relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is called abhideya-jnana.

The fourth chapter describes the result of such action. This is known as prayojana-jnana.

Because the Vedanta-sutra is in codes which contain a lot of knowledge, it required commentaries (bhasyas).

Shripada Sankaracarya wrote his commentary on Vedanta-sutra based on monism (advaita - not two). He established that God and the living entity are one. Not accepting the transformation of the energy of Absolute Truth, which is the actual explanation of th e Vedanta-sutra, he introduced the theory of illusion. He claimed that everything is one with Supreme.

There are other (theistic) commentaries by vaishnava acaryas:


Nimbarka - dvaitadvaita (oneness and dualism)

Vishnuswami - suddhadvaita (purified oneness)

Ramanujacarya - visistadvaita (specific oneness)

Madhvacarya - dvaita (dualism)

Baladeva vidyabhusana - acintya bhedabheda (inconceivable oneness and difference)


In each of these commentaries, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is established as the cause of all causes, the cosmic manifestation is established as transformation of His inconceivable energies, and devotional service is described very explicitly.


1.Who is Vyasadeva? Why did he compile Vedanta-sutras?

2.What is Vedanta? What is sutra? How do you know?

3.What is the connection between Upanisads and Vedanta-sutra?

4.What is the connection between knowledge of the Vedas and Vedanta-sutras?

5.What are the different names of Vedanta-sutra?

6.What are the contents of the Vedanta-sutra?

7.What is the necessity of commentaries on the Vedanta-sutra?

8.Describe in brief the commentary of Sankaracarya?

9.List the vaishnava commentaries and the names of their philosophies.

10.What is common in the vaishnava commentaries?

Lesson Five (Puranas, Itihasas, and Kavyas)

Puranas are compiled from related historical facts which explain the teachings of the four Vedas. In the Chandogya Upanisad, the Puranas and the Mahabharata, generally known as histories, are mentioned as the fifth Veda.

Shrila Vyasadeva, due to his kindness and sympathy toward the fallen souls, supplemented the Vedas with Puranas which easily explain the Vedic truths, intended for different types of men.

All men are not equal. There are men who are conducted by the mode of goodness, others who are under the mode of passion and others who are under the mode of ignorance. The Puranas are so divided that any class of men can take advantage of them and gradu ally regain their original position and get out of the hard struggle for existence.

All the stories mentioned in the Puranas are actual histories, not only of this planet but also on millions of other planets within the universe.

In the Puranas, (which are classified under the three modes) as a matter of course, Shrila Vyasadeva has certainly given descriptions of the glories of Krishna, but not as many as given to religiosity economic development, sense gratification and salvation . These four items are by far very inferior to engagement in the devotional service of the Lord.

Therefore, in the pure-goodness Purana, viz., Shrimad Bhagavatam, Shrila Vyasadeva proclaims that the prime necessity of human life is to realize one's eternal relationship with the Lord and thus surrender unto Him without delay.

Itihasas are literatures describing historical events pertaining to either a single hero or a few heroic personalities in a lineage: for example, Ramayana describing the pastimes of Shri Ramacandra and Mahabharata describing the pastimes of the Pandavas i n the lineage of the Kurus. In these books there are topics on transcendental subjects along with material topics. The Bhagavad-gita is a part of Mahabharata. The whole idea of the Mahabharata culminates in the ultimate instructions of the Bhagavad-gita t hat one should give up all other engagements and should engage oneself solely and fully in surrendering unto the lotus feet of Krishna. The conclusive teaching of the Ramayana also is to fully surrender and take shelter of Lord Shri Ramacandra.

Kavyas are dramatic poetical presentations of selected histories from the Itihasas and/or Puranas, some examples are Raghuvamsa, Meghaduta, Sakuntala.

All the vedic literatures, are put into systematic order for the benefit of the fallen souls who are detached from the transcendental loving service of the Lord, It is the duty of the fallen souls to take advantage of such literatures and become freed fr om the bondage of material existence.


1.How are Puranas compiled?

2.Give an evidence for the Vedic authority of the Puranas.

3.How did Vyasadeva helped the different types of men to understand the vedic truths?

4.How are the Puranas divided?

5.What subject matters are given more importance in the Puranas under the three modes?

6.How is Shrimad Bhagavatam different from the other Puranas?

7.What mode is Shrimad Bhagavatam in?

8.What are Itihasas? What is the ultimate teaching contained in them?

9.What is the utility of the Puranic classification of the Vedic literature?

Lesson Six (Pancaratras)

Pancaratrasya krtsnasya vakta to bhagavan svayam: The Pancaratra system is spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead (just like the Bhagavad-gita); there are 108 Pancaratra books in which the system of worship of the Lord in His Deity form is explained to and through the great authorities of devotional service, viz., Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, Goddess Laksmi etc., Padma Pancaratra, Narada Pancaratra, Hayasirsa Pancaratra, Laksmi-tantra, and Mahesa Pancaratra are some of the most important books of Pancar atra.

Under the Vedic vidhi (rules) a student is required to be a bonafide son of a brahmin or twice born, but a sudra can be elevated to a brahmins position by Pancaratrika vidhi.

As human society becomes degraded by the influence of the age of Kali, people become unfit for the vedic system. So the Pancaratra system of making one qualified by initiating him into the process of devotional service by which he is engaged fully in the service of the Deity form of the Lord is the only practical method for deliverance in this age of Kali.

Pancaratra books contain elaborate descriptions on the subject matter of the expansions and incarnations of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, especially the Deity incarnations, detailed informations on day to day worship of the Deity forms, methods of purification of the worshipper and process of practical meditation, process of installing temple and Deities, and instructions on how to conduct different festivals in glorification of the pastimes of the Lord.

In the four authorised sampradayas, the acaryas have compiled Deity worship manuals based on these Pancaratra books. Lord Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu instructed Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami in the subject matter of Pancaratra and advised them to write books on this subject.

Shrila Sanatana Goswami compiled Hari bhakti vilas, giving elaborate descriptions of vaishnava regulative principles and practice. Shrila Rupa Goswami made his treatise on the subject, viz., Bhakti rasamrta sindhu with profound knowledge of revealed scriptu res and authoritative references from various Vedic literatures, especially Narada Pancaratra.

Shrila Prabhupada gave a summary study in prose on Bhakti rasamrta sindhu, in his book Nectar of Devotion. Thus the codes of conduct book for the Krishna conscious devotees, the Nectar of Devotion, is the Pancaratra book for the Krishna consciousness movement.


1.What are Pancaratras?

2.What is the difference between Vedic rules and Pancaratrika rules?

3.What is the special importance of the Pancaratra system in the age of Kali?

4.What are the subject matters of the Pancaratra books?

5.What is Nectar of Devotion? Explain it_s connection with the Pancaratra books.

Lesson Seven (The Four Books)

Bhagavad-gita As It Is:

This book is the a, b, c book of spiritual education. This is the essence of the knowledge imparted in the Upanisads. Since Brahma-sutras give conclusive meaning to the Upanisads, Bhagavad-gita is also the essence of the subject matter of the Brahma-sutras. Vedic knowledge is complete because it is above all doubts and mistakes, and Bhagavad-gita is the essence of all such Vedic knowledge. Out of many standard and authoritative revealed scriptures, the Bhagavad-gita is the best.

In the present age people are so absorbed in mundane activities that it is not possible for them to read all the Vedic literatures. This one book, Bhagavad-gita As It Is will suffice because it is the essence of all vedic literatures and especially becau se it is spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The whole Bhagavad-gita centers around the declaration that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and that the ultimate perfection of life for the living being is to fully surrender unto Him.

Nectar of devotion:

Bhaktirasamrta sindhu by Shrila Rupa Goswami is a treatise on the codes of conduct of devotees compiled in Haribhakti vilas by Shrila Sanatana Goswami. Shrila Prabhupada gave a summary study of Bhaktirasamrta sindhu in his book Nectar of Devotion, thus providing the Pancaratra for the devotees of the Krishna consciousness movement.

The Nectar of Devotion teaches us how to turn that switch that will immediately brighten everything, everywhere, by engaging in the simple and natural method of loving Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Even those who are completely confused and frustrated in life, can extinguish immediately the fire of material existence burning within their hearts, by learning this art of devotional service as directed in the Nectar of Devotion.

The Nectar of Devotion is specifically presented for persons who are engaged in the Krishna Consciousness movement.


Within the Vedic literature, there are two systems of education. One deals with transcendental knowledge (para vidya) and the other with material knowledge (apara vidya). The Vedas and their corollaries the six Vedangas deal with the inferior system of m aterial knowledge, viz, to improve religion (dharma), economic development (artha), sense gratification (kama), and liberation (moksa).

As far as Vedic literature is concerned, Vedanta-sutra is accepted as the para vidya. Shrimad Bhagavatam is an explanation of that para vidya. It is the fully matured fruit of the desire tree known as Vedic literature.

Shrila Prabhupada has given his Bhaktivedanta (devotional Vedanta) translations and purports on Shrimad Bhagavatam as the graduate study for the devotees of the Krishna consciousness movement.

Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita:

Shri Krishna appeared as Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to give practical demonstrations of the teachings He gave as Krishna. He relished the descriptions of Krishna lila given in the Shrimad Bhagavatam by Vyasadeva.

Shrila Vrndavan Das Thakur, the Vyasa of Chaitanya Bhagavata described Lord Chaitanyas pastimes. Following in his footsteps Shri Krishnadas Kaviraj Goswami, composed Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita, in which the teachings of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu are described in g reat detail.

One begins with Bhagavad-gita and advances through Shrimad Bhagavatam (for which conducting life according to the codes of Nectar of Devotion is a must), to the Chaitanya Charitamrita. Although all these great scriptures are on the same absolute level, for t he sake of comparative study Chaitanya Charitamrita is considered to be on the highest platform.

Shrila Prabhupada says in his preface to the Chaitanya Charitamrita, "I sincerely hope that by understanding the teachings of Lord Chaitanya human society will experience a new light of spiritual life which will open the field of activity of the pure soul."

Shrila Prabhupada says in his purport to text 118 of chapter twenty-two, in the Madhya-lila of Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita:

"In our Krishna consciousness movement we have therefore limited our study of Vedic literatures to Bhagavad-gita, Shrimad Bhagavatam, Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita and Bhaktirasamrta sindhu. These four works are sufficient for preaching purposes. They are adequat e for the understanding of the philosophy and the spreading of missionary activities all over the world."

The whole ocean of Vedic literature is contained in these four books of Shrila Prabhupada - as you have seen through these lessons. If a student sincerely studies these four books analytically and systematically,

"Four books are enough!"