VEDANTA IN ANCIENT AND MODERN TIMES
Vedanta is being practiced for more than five thousand years in India. Vedanta is full of profound philosophical revelation by ancient Rishis. Without their revelations, mankind would have been groping in the dark about the relationship between man, universe and the Supreme consciousness. The end part of the Vedas is called Vedanta. Vedas are divided in to four as Rik Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Rik Veda has 10552 mantras(verses), Yajur Veda has more than 2000 mantras, Sama Veda has nearly 2000 mantras and Atharva Veda has 6000 mantras respectively. In the ancient times there was no script; Vedanta was taught by oral rendition. Only in the later period, these precious verses were scripted in palm leaves. A good part of the Vedas was destroyed by many rulers who invaded India. Natural erosion and destruction also destroyed many precious scriptures.
In the ancient times, a student of Vedanta had to be proficient with the Veda mantras before studying Vedanta. A student would take approximately twelve years to complete Vedic education. Only then he was qualified to study Vedanta. Vedanta is mainly based on Upanishads. Upanishads are many and only 108 Upanishads are available at present, and among them Adi Shankara wrote commentary for only ten Upanishads. Upanishad verses are deep philosophical revelations by various Rishis. Only a matured intelligent mind can grasp the in depth meaning of the Upanishad verses. When a student practices Veda mantras and Vedic rituals, the mind becomes more involved and this helps the mind to evolve more. Upanishad teachers were also very rare. A teacher accepted a student, only after knowing about his capacity and maturity to grasp the subtle concepts of the Upanishads. In the ancient times, Sanskrit language was compulsorily learnt before learning Vedas, because only then a student would be able to understand the Rishi Vakya by his own, else he had to depend on the commentaries( like modern times). The teachers gave them freedom and helped them to analyze and learn by their own.
It was not compulsory that a student of Vedanta should pursue an ascetic life. They can have a family life and devote time to learn and practice Vedanta. In the ancient period there were no technological advancement. People mainly spent their life in spirituality or in agriculture. In the ancient period people devoted their entire life to practice Vedanta. People who practiced Vedanta were considered as the cream of the society. In the epic period, it was compulsory for the young princes to go to a gurukul ( home of the teacher) to learn Vedanta, because they believed that only a stable, matured and learned king can rule their subjects in a perfect way. Even though Vedanta could be learnt by any one regardless of the caste, creed, gender or race, people mainly from the brahmin community learnt Vedanta. In fact, the truth is, an individual who has the knowledge of Brahman is called a Brahmin. In the later period, the generations of these Brahmins assumed this name, regardless of their knowledge about Brahman. Even woman were not barred from learning Vedanta. People, who led family life, after completing their family responsibilities, retired to the forest to learn Vedanta. This included even ruling Monarchs. This period of life is called Vanapratha. Vedanta should not be denied to anyone, because it is the education about the Self. Every individual has the right to learn Vedanta, which is also known as Brahma Vidya, but at the same time, these precious and glorious teachings should not be wasted on someone who does not take it seriously. Attaining success in Brahma vidya is an entirely different matter, which is depends on the past karmas, grasping power, facility and atmosphere to practice Vedanta etc. However, it has to be learnt with humbleness, seriousness and with regards and respect to the Rishis who revealed them, else, we are degrading our own Self. It is the responsibility of the guru to teach Vedanta to an apt student.
The manner in which the ancient people viewed the world is entirely different from the manner in which a modern man views the scientific world. The ancient people never disturbed the nature; they respected nature and considered it as a part of them. Their habits and their serene nature enabled them to live in thick forests. The pure atmosphere of the forest helped them to evolve more. In ancient period realizing the Self was not rare. They recorded their inner revelations as verses and scriptures, which are helpful for the modern world. When the time advanced, the land space increased and the forest moved inside. When the technology developed, systems changed drastically. During the epic period and later, Vedic rituals became prominent than Vedanta. Many religions evolved from Vedas. All these together distorted the purity of practicing Vedanta. This continued for a long time and many changes came to spirituality until Jagad Guru Sri Adi Shankaracharya brought back the system of Vedanta in the form of Advaita Vedanta. He travelled throughout India by foot and observed that people misunderstood Vedanta and practiced it in the way which is convenient to them. His works based on Vedanta, helped to understand Vedanta in the correct manner. He explained the tough verses of the Upanishads in the simplest form with proper metaphors and anecdotes. To spread Vedanta, he established mutts in four parts of India, in Badarikashrama, Puri, Dwaraka and Shringeri.
With this, Vedanta became more easily accessible. With the advantage of the printing technology in the world, in the modern period, the Upanishads and its commentaries are available in the book form. This enabled Vedanta to spread to a larger circle. Along with every advantage, there will be a disadvantage. The disadvantage of the modern Vedanta is, people failed to recognize the importance and the glory of the Upanishads. To understand the indepth meaning of the Upanishad verses, we have to think exactly like the Rishis, else the profound meaning and the greatness of the verses cannot be enjoyed. In the modern period, people mainly depend on the commentaries of the Upanishad teachers. Many do not have the knowledge of Sanskrit. The Mutts and the Ashramas in various parts of the world help everyone to understand Vedanta by their teachings and publications. They help to continue the Rishi line.
In the modern period, Swami Vivekananda shocked the world with Rishi Vakyas, through his extraordinary speeches. The world woke up to see India only after his bold and meaningful words. His contribution to spreading Vedanta is unparallel. He gave speeches in the way that even a layman can understand Vedanta. In the modern world, there will not be many people who devote their entire life to Vedanta. Therefore, to suit the modern world, he gave Vedanta in a capsule form, so that anyone can digest the ideas of the Upanishad verses easily. If Vedanta is not spread, it will not proceed to generations. Swami Vivekananda gave lectures about the importance of Vedanta in normal life. He brought Vedanta to the outside world which was still then in the thick forests. In recent times, Vedanta is offered as a full fledged degree course in many Universities and Vedanta research institutes all over the world. This paved way for many people who are interested in Vedanta, to do in depth research on the subtle concepts of Vedanta. Many scholars compare the concepts of Vedanta with other religious concepts. The latest area in Vedanta is to compare Vedanta with science. Scientists are trying to understand the subtleness of Vedanta. Knowledge of the Self can be had from nature, science, art, music etc. This is an indirect method. In this method, we go from the effect to the cause and reach the causeless cause, the Supreme truth. The substratum of all the scientific truths, physical and mental phenomena, and the natural laws is the one Supreme Truth. Even though his mode of approach to Truth may be different, a real scientist is only a Vedantin. By studying metaphysics, people accepted the fact that creation is one, but seen from different planes of vision.
In modern period, many people learn Vedanta out of curiosity. Meditation, one of the paths to Self realization, is practiced for relaxation of the mind. It is very hard to find any serious pursuers in the field of Vedanta. The goal of Vedanta should be properly understood. If the goal is not clear, then the path will be a distorted path. Even a little knowledge about Vedanta will help a person to attain Self realization in a slow pace. The knowledge of Vedanta is never wasted. In the modern period, people do not have the mental ability or capability like the Rishis. Vedanta makes the mind stronger and helps us to face the entanglements in life.
Bhagavad Gita, which has many Upanishad ideas has found world wide acceptance in recent times. Many scholars and spiritually evolved people have written commentaries for Baghavad Gita. Common man found Baghavad Gita easier to understand than the heavy philosophical facts of the Upanishads. Another scripture, Srimad Bhagavad has also found worldwide recognition and acceptance because of its simplified way of making people understand the Vedanta revelations through stories and anecdotes. Vedanta helps an individual to have a stable mind, in spite of crisis.
In the ancient times, Bhakti was used as a way to attain Self realization. The margin between Bhakti and Vedanta is very subtle. The all pervading Supreme consciousness is superimposed on a particular form. In the modern time, without understanding the truth, a fear factor is created with an idea that God will punish the wrong doers, and people separated the concept of God from the ordinary human being. They failed to understand that Bhagavan is the inner consciousness and intelligence, which shines brightly when the curtain of ignorance is removed by Bhakti(devotion).
Scriptures lead us to Self realization by knowledge. It wants us to realize Brahman as our Self through Knowledge. Vedanta helps us to reveal the Truth by peeling off each layer of ignorance. The teaching methods used in Vedanta are applicable at all times. The more we learn Vedanta, the more we find out how ignorant we are. Vedanta is nothing but the proper understanding of the truth.
Swami Vivekananda says that ‘ You will be the way, you view yourself. If you view yourself as the Supreme powerful consciousness, then you are Brahman. If you view yourself as mind and body, then you are that’. Vedanta practiced in the physical presence of a guru will definitely make a difference. Sometimes, this is lacking in the modern world. Even though Vedanta is not practiced in the exact way as in the ancient period, the legacy of the Vedanta is still continuing for the benefit of the human race. The teachers of Vedanta will hold the torch and spread the light of Truth universally, for generations.