The Vedic Canon

  • Themes: Canon, India

Canons usually ring-fence the cultural material that is ‘banked’ as precious by a given society. But the Vedic canon was fluid, organic, and open to ever-new possibilities.

Vedic theatre in Kerala, India.
Vedic theatre in Kerala, India. Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

The history of Asia has been greatly shaped by the organic, jazz-like, free-form development of the Vedic canon, a vast Sanskrit corpus of texts that span almost a millennium of Indian history. The ancient culture of the Aryans probably arrived in India through migration from the Mesopotamian region at some point in the second millennium BC. It was centred on the performance of a certain set of rituals. These involved both eloquent hymns to the Gods (captured in the Rg and Sama Vedas, arguably the world’s oldest living religious texts), and detailed practical instructions (set out in the Yajur Veda’s instructions, Atharva Vedic spells, and associated Vedanga technical sciences). In many ways these rituals followed a standard Ancient Near Eastern pattern: they worshipped a pantheon of Gods led by a kingly thunderbolt-wielder, and they accessed these deities through burnt offerings made via the intercession of a lively fire-god, on an altar tended by an endogamous priestly class who could speak a mysterious sacred language. So far, so familiar.

But the Aryan ritual required a precision almost unequaled in any other ritual culture on earth; the time, the precise geometric shapes of the altar, the actions, the sounds and their grammar, all had to be exact. If it was not perfect, then the Gods would not reciprocate with their own gifts of rain, food, health, safety and sons. Sciences of perfection evolved around the ritual: astronomy evolved to calculate the proper time, and Pythagoras’ theorem was discovered (some time before Pythagoras) to ensure the bricks of the altar were set just right. The words had to be spoken in pristine pronunciation, metre, and linguistic form. Sciences of phonetics, prosody and grammar were developed. Eventually even the theoretical and metaphysical implications of these sciences came to be captured in some of the world’s earliest philosophical texts. The ritual inspired its own canon, growing from the small seedlings of action into saplings of word and theory.

But all of this had to be recorded in robust oral traditions to survive the passing of the generations. A meticulously-styled textual corpus evolved, stored in the flesh-and-blood library of the priest’s memories. Once composed in catchy verse, the Vedic texts of their many different kinds were broken down into units of cadence, word and syllable, and memorized in different styles of recitation or paṭha – the words were memorised in easy chants. They were also memorised backwards. Indeed, a master pathin might memorise a book of hymns to the sun god forward in a smooth riverine euphonic flow, in verbal ‘tiles’ where the last word of each pair is repeated before moving on, in ‘braids’ where one weaves back and forwards throughout the text, and in ‘bells’ where the syllables of the text are sung out in a deconstructed bell shape. These different versions could be cross-referenced so as to ensure what other traditions often neglected: the tendency for people to add their own insertions, or swap synonyms at will. This preserved the Vedic canon with perfect fidelity for millennia.

The 1975 film Altar of Fire made by the Dutch scholar Frits Staal captures some of this culture of memorisation and deployment. More than three thousand years after the texts were first set down in this way, we can still see Nambudiri brahmin families of Kerala keeping alive the purely oral form of the canon, reciting verses in baroque patterns, dancing out the verbal structure as well as chanting it.

With this care, the canon gained a long, long life and was able to grow from ancient seeds into millennial trees; eventually, the ritual-focused corpus became a whole forest of text. But around that canon, two different realities intertwined – the theological one, and the historical one.

On the one hand, the Vedas inhabited an extraordinary spiritual realm beyond time and space. This was expressed in the ethos of Sanskrit, was understood to be the gods’ own language possessing a grammatical perfection that matched the metaphysical structure of the cosmos itself. Accordingly, it became one of the world’s most grammatically concise languages – seven declensions, three gender settings, dual as well as singular and plural forms, ten categories of verb, detailed phonetics, and – with Pāṇini’s great work of linguistics, the Aṣṭādhyāyī – a generative grammatical structure that encoded not only existing but also potential linguistic forms, much like an early programming language. Sanskrit acquired a diamond-like clarity, and the Vedas were understood to be its crystalisation in a canon of perfect sounds and meanings.

With this came a striking ideal of revelatory truth: the Vedas were understood as a divine revelation, but not the kind that has to be told to humans, like the Qur’an or Ten Commandments (although Barbara Holdrege has noted that this ideology shares some traits with Jewish conceptions of Hebrew). Rather, they were believed to have been heard directly out of reality – like a resonance in the fabric of the universe. In the primeval past an ancient elite of seers – Rishis – acquired a special ear for the inmost structure of things and were able to transcribe them directly into the divine language of Sanskrit. In a sense, the Veda were more like a seismographic imprint of the universe than a mode of communication.

The Tantra scholar André Padoux has pointed out that the speaking of the Vedas – in mantras – is often treated more as a power than a message. This theological history of the canon explains this. The heroic kings of the Mahabharata epic used mantras as a sonic weapon that could blast away their opponents. Priests transubstantiate matter into divine sacraments using mantras. Today, Thai kings are still consecrated in the sacramental language of Sanskrit, and Thai corner-stores still sell glossy magazines with amulets, spells, and Sanskrit symbols believed to bring power to those who wield them. Sanskrit is even incorporated into traditional Thai tattoos that inscribe Vedic energy into flesh where it can empower its bearer. The aura of the Vedas is also a valuable currency among modern influencers. On Amazon alone, one can buy Vedic vitamins, and guides to Vedic maths, prophecies, lifestyle, and purpose. Like a spell, the Vedic canon has become both an ancient literature, and a kind of modern power-bank giving access to infinite eternal energies.

But the cultural history of the Vedic canon is just as extraordinary as its immortal theological origin. Alongside the Vedas’ static life in eternity, they underwent a fluid mercurial life in culture. The original texts did not change… but they grew, inspiring a verdant jungle of additions. From the first hymns in the 1200 BC Rg Veda, came accompanying myths in the Brahmanas, symbolic interpretations in the Aranyakas, cosmogonic and metaphysical speculation in the Upanishads, and eventually new genres of independent treatise on the resulting schools of philosophy in the Sutras, expansive debates among characters in the literature of the great Sanskrit epics, theistic theological treatments of these ideas in the late classical Puranas, and scholastic commentaries that reached into the medieval period. These later genres were not strictly Vedas… but they all quoted them, related themselves to them (the Mahabharata epic called itself a new Veda), and were seen as somehow tapping into the Vedas’ sacramental power.

All of this was possible through the natural dynamics of oral literature, where a spoken idea that stands out in the moment can be picked out to inspire new expressions. Take an example: a famous hymn recorded in around 1000 BC is the Puruṣa Sūkta, or ‘Hymn of the Person’ (Rg Veda book 10.90). It is not a paean of praise but a cosmogonic myth of how the universe was formed from a vast primeval ‘person’, whose body was divided up to make the physical cosmos we live in. The primeval person was the ‘Lord of Immortality’, with ‘a thousand heads, …a thousand eyes, a thousand feet; on every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide and is all that yet has been and all that is to be’. The more philosophical Upanisads (the latest strata of strictly Vedic text from c.800-200 BC) picked up the image of the Great Person as a way to describe the ultimate divine reality, Brahman. But here it was combined with the influence of different debating schools (asking ‘what is the highest reality – matter, time, elemental laws or chance – or ‘the Person’?) and of the new class of curious inward-lookers, the yogis.

These authentically Vedic images then passed beyond the strict canon and were picked up in Hinduism’s most compelling religious treatise, the Bhagavad Gita, where God appears in a sublime revelation with ‘hundreds and thousands of wonderful forms of various shapes, sizes, and colours’ and the entire universe assembled inside his wonderful form. Here the older image helped to counter Buddhist ideas of a vast cosmic body of the Buddha, and to encourage a new flourishing of theism. But this vivid depiction caught on among a more popular audience: after that, various deities, Hindu and even Buddhist, were depicted with many heads and arms. Later theological treatises like the Bhagavata Purana spend whole chapters (book 10, chapter 6) explicating it, not least as the basis for spiritual meditation, and it inspired a visual meme spanning many centuries of the divine being displaying its many forms. Thousands of versions have been printed as posters by Hindus for home worship, or evoked in popular television adaptations of the Mahabharata. The part of the passage that describes the great person as being like ‘a thousand suns blazing forth in the sky’ may even have moved Robert Oppenheimer to quote the Bhagavad Gita when he first saw for himself the power that a nuclear explosion can unleash.

Yet few of these later interpreters had much, or any, direct knowledge of the original. They simply riffed on a compelling theme – like jazz musicians improvising their solo performance based on a classic melody. Since there was no centralised authority in Hinduism to enforce orthodoxy, everything with a ring to it lived and took on new forms over time. It was this creative openness, as much as the rigid memorisation process of the priests, that kept the Vedic canon alive.

Canons usually ring-fence the cultural material that is ‘banked’ as precious by a given society. That is why we get the Council of Nicea, the Uthmanic Codex, and other attempts to control text. But the Vedic canon was fluid, organic, and open to ever-new possibilities. Julius Lipner has likened Vedic culture with all its branches to a Banyan tree, a species that grows wide and puts down new aerial roots that in turn become trees, and so grow into a huge polycentric organism. The metaphor of organic growth is (forgive the pun) a fruitful one. Alongside their transcendent form in eternity, the Vedas continue to branch, bud and blossom within culture. In this they are an exemplar of the way that oral canons can grow unconstrained by any judge of ‘orthodoxy’.


Jessica Frazier