People in the distant past had remarkable abilities and possessed great yogic and intellectual power. So theym could gain mastery of many Vedic recensions. As for the great sages it wsas a matter of the Vedas revealing themselves to them in a flash. Others with their unusual abilities were able to master not only the Vedas but other branches of learning. The Vedas in their infinitude being like the expanse of an endless ocean, no one has been able to master all of them. Even so in the remote past there were individuals conversant with a large number of sakhas.
In later times men began to lose their divine yogic power. At the beginning of the age of Kali it became very weak indeed. The life-span of man began to get shorter and his health and intelligence declined. It is all the sport of the Paramatman. Why should there have been a dimunition in human power and human intelligence? It is dificult to answer the question. Would it not be natural to expect an increase, generation after generation, in the number of people learning the Vedas, performing sacrifices and conducting Atmic inquiry? Why is it not so? Again it is a question that is hard to answer.
The Paramatman conducts the cosmic drama playing in strange and ever new ways. Although scientists like Darwin speak of evolution, in the matter of Atmic strength, intellectual enlightenment, character and yogic power, we seem to have be en going further and further down on the scale.
Since the Krta-Yuga there has been a decline in the powers of man. In that age a man lived so long as his skeleton lasted. Even if his blood dried up and his flesh was destroyed he survived until his bones collapsed. People in the Krta age had much power of knowledge. They were called "asti-gata-pranas".
In the Treta age people were "mamsa-gata-pranas", that is they lived so long as their flesh lasted and did not perish even when their blood dried up. They had a special capacity for performing sacrifices. In the Dvapara age people were "rudhira-gata-pranas" and lived until such time as their blood dried up. They were known especially for the puja they performed. We of the Kali age are "anna-gata-pranas" and life will remain in our body so long as the food [nourishment] lasts. We have little capacity to meditate, perform rituals and puja. But we are capable of chanting the names of the Lord - Krsna, Rama, and so on. It is true that by muttering the names of the Lord we will be liberated.
Even so we must not allow the Vedas to become extinct. They were bequeathed to us from the time of creation. Must we allow them to be lost?
When Sri Krsna departed from this world, grim darkness enveloped the world. There is " darkness" in his name itself (" Krsna" means dark). He was also born in darkness, in the dungeon of a prison at midnight. But he was the radiance of knowledge for all the world, the light of compassion. When he departed much injury was done to jnana, and darkness descended into the world. Kali, who is the evil incarnate, acceded to authority. All this is the sport of Paratman, the sport that is inscrutable. Sri Krsna came as a burst of light. Then, urged by his compassion, he decided that the world must not go to waste. He thought that it could be saved by administering an antidote against the venom of Kali. This antidate was the Vedas. It would be enough if precautions were taken to make sure that the " Kali Man" did not devour them- the world would be saved. In the darkness surrounding everything they would serve the purpose of a lamp lighting the path of mankind. In the age of Kali they would not shine with the same effulgence as in the previous ages. But the Lord resolved that they must burn with at least the minimum of lustre to be of benefit to mankind and this he ensured through Vedavyasa who was partially his incarnation.
The sage who was to carry out Bhagvan Krsna's resolve was not then called Veda Vyasa. His name too was Krsna and, since he was born on an island, he had the appellation " Dvaipayana" ( Islander). Badarayana is another name of his. Krsna Dvaipayana knew all the 1, 180 sakhas( recensions) of the Vedas revealed to the world by various sages. They were mingled together in one great stream. Being remarkably gifted, our ancestors could memorise all of them. For the benefit of weaker people like us, Vyasa divided them into four Vedas and subdivided each into sakhas. It was like damming a river and taking the water through various canals. Vyasa accomplished the task of dividing the Vedas easily because he was a great yogin with vision and because he had the power gained from austerities.
The Rgvedic sakhas contain hymns to invoke the various deities; the Yajurvedic sakhas deal with the conduct of sacrifices; l the Samaveda sakhas contain songs to please the deities; and the Atharvaveda sakhas, besides dealing with sacrifices, contain mantras recited to avert calamities and to destroy enemies. The Samaveda had the largest number of recensions, 1, 000. In the Rgveda there were 21; in the Yajus 109( Sukla-Yajur veda 15, and Krsna Yajur veda 94); and in the Atharvaveda 50.
While, according to one scholar, the Visnu Purana mentions the number of sakhas to be 1, 180, another version is that there were 1, 133 recensions- the Rgveda 21, the Yajurveda 101, the Samaveda 1, 000 and the Atharvaveda 11.
Considering that people in the age of Kali would be inferior to their forefathers, Krsna Dvaipayana thought that it should be sufficient for them to learn one sakha of any one of the four Vedas. It was the Lord that put this idea into his head. Vyasa assigned the Rgveda sakhas to Paila, the Yajurveda sakhas to Vaisampayana, the Samaveda sakhas to Jaimini and the Atharvanaveda sakhas to Sumantu. ]
Krsna Dvaipayana came to be called "Vedavyasa" for having divided the Vedas into four and then having subdivided them into 1, 180 recensions. "Vyasa" literally means an "essay" or a "composition". Classifying objects is also known as "vyasa".
According to Krsna Dvaipayana's arrangement, though it is obligatory for a person [ that is a Brahmin] to learn only one recension, it does not mean that there is a bar on learning more. The intention is that at least one sadha must be studied. Even after Vyasa's time, there have been examples of panditas mastering more than one sakha from the four Vedas. ( Vyasa divided the Vedas some 5, 000 years ago. This has been established to some extent historically. Instead of accepting this date arrived at according to our sastras, modern historians maintain that the date of the Mahabarata must be 1500 B. C. But of late, opinion is veering round to the view that the epic dates back to 5, 000 years ago.
I said that there was no bar on anyone learning more than one sakha. Even today we find North Indians with appellations like "Caturvedi", "Trivedi" and "Dvivedi".
We had a "Trivedi", who was governor of one of our states. "Duve" and "Dave" are derived from "Dvivedi". One descended from a family well versed in the four Vedas is called a "Caturvedin". In Bengal he is called a "Catterji". Those who have mastered three Vedas are "Trivedins". Today it is rare to see a man who has learned even one Veda, but the fact that members of some families still call themselves "Trivedins" or "Caturvedins" show that in the past there must have been individuals who knew more than one Veda. Jnanasambandhar calls himself "Nanmarai Jnanasambandhar". Since he was suckled by Amba herself it must have been easy for him to master the four Vedas.
During these 5, 000 years and more since Vedavyasa divided the Vedas, many sakhas have been lost. Out of the 1, 180 we are in the unfortunate position of having only six or seven. Of the 21 sakhas of the Rgveda there is only one extant- it is called the Sakala Sakha, or the Aitareya Sakha, since the Aitareya Upanishad occurs in it. Of the 15 recencions of the Sukla- Yajurveda only two are extant, the Kanva Sakha having a large following in Maharashtra and the Madhyandina Sakha in North India. Of the 94 sakhas of the Krsna- Yajurveda, the Taittiriya has a large following, particularly in the South. We have lost 997 of the 1, 000 sakhas of the Samaveda. In Tamil Nadu those who follow the Kauthuma Sakha are more in number than those who follow the Talavakara Sakha, while in Maharastra there is a small following for Ranayaniya. Once it was feared that out of the 50 recensions of the Atharvaveda none was extant. But on inquiry it was discovered that there was a Brahmin in Sinor, Gujarat, who was conversant with the Saunaka Sakha of this Veda. We sent students from here ( Tamil Nadu) to learn the same from him.
The Aitareya Brahmana and the Kausitaki Brahmana ( also called Sankhayana Brahmana) of the Rgveda are still available to us. The Aitareya Upanisad and the Kausitaki Upanisad, which are part of the Aranyakas belonging to these, are still extant.
Of the Sukla- Yajurveda we have the Satapatha Brahmana. This is common- with minor differences- to both the Madhyandina and Kanva Sakhas. It is a voluminous work which serves as an explanation for all the Vedas. Only one Aranyaka is extant from this Veda and it constitutes the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. I have already mentioned that the Isavasya Upanisad belongs to the Samhita part of the Veda.
Of the Krsna- Yajurveda the Taittiriya Brahmana alone is extant. Among the Aranyakas of this Veda we have the Taittitiya; the Taittiriya Upanisad and the Mahanarayana Upanisad are part of it. The latter contains a number of mantras commonly used. The Maitrayani Aranyaka and the Upanisad of the same name also belong to the Krsna- Yajurveda. As mentioned before, of the Katha Sakha only the Upanisad( Kathopanisad) is available, not the Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka.
(Similarly, the Svetasvatoaropanisad of the Krsna- Yajurveda is still extant, but no other part of the relevant sakha. )
Nine hundred ninety- seven sakhas of the Samaveda are lost and of its Brahmanas only some seven or eight have survived- Tandya, Arseya, Devatadhyaya, Samhitopanishad, Vamsa, ( Sadvimsa, Chandogya, Jaiminiya). The Talavakara Aranyaka of this Veda is also called the Talavakara Brahmana. The Kenopanishad comes at the end of it: so it is also known as the Talavakara Upanisad. The Chandogya Brahmana has the Chandogya Upanisad.
To repeat what I mentioned earlier, we still have three important Upanisads from the Atharvaveda- Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya. ( The Nrsimha Tapini Upanisad also belongs to this Veda. ) The only Brahmana of this Veda to have survived is Gopatha.
We should be guilty of a grave offence if the seven or eight sakhas of the 1, 180 that still survive become extinct because of our neglect: there will be no expiation for the same.
In the South, which is called "Dravidadesa", Vedic learning is still kept alive by the Namputiris in Kerala. And it was well maintained in Andhra Prades until recently. A great encouragement to this was the annual Navrathri festival at Vijayavada every year when examinations for Vedic students and an assembly of Vedic scholars were held. Those who took part in the assembly were given cash awards as well as certificates. Brahmacarins and pandits came from all over the country to take part in the examination and the assembly respectively. The certificate was highly valued. A scholar returning home with the certificate was honoured by householders all along the way. There was a custom in Andhra Prades to set aside a tidy sum to be presented to Vedic scholars at weddings. Vedic learning flourished in that state because of such incentives.
A Brahmin ought not to run after money; if he does he ceases to be a Brahmin. However, we have to consider the fact that today any occupation or profession other than that of the Vedic scholar is lucrative. One learned in the Vedas cannot make ends meet. Such being the case it becomes incumbent on us to devise a system by which the Vedic scholar too can live without any care. It is because the minimum needs of Vedic students and scholars were met in the Telugu country that scriptural learning flourished there.
We are making efforts to promote Vedic learning all over India and in particular in Tamil Nadu- and a scheme has been drawn up to raise funds for pathasalsas( Vedic schools). In Tamil Nadu there was patronage for Vedic learning until the reign of Hindu rulers like the Nayakas. Later it received encouragement from the princely states. A Brahmin who has mastered an entire Veda sakha is called a "srotriya", from "Sruti" meaning the Vedas. It was customary for Tamil rajas to donate land to such Brahmins and sometimes an entire village was given away, it being exempt from taxes. This is described as "iraiyili" in old inscriptions. "Brahmadesam" is the name given to lands made over to Brahmins as gifts. In the royal edicts the word used is "Brahmadeyam". "Caturvedimangalam" was the name given to a village donated by royalty to Brahmins proficient in all four Vedas. Those who spent all thier time in learning and teaching the scriptures had no other source of income. So they were exempt from kisti. This exemption was in force even during the rule of the Nawabs, the East India Company and its successor British government. Even though the British did nothing to promote Vedic studies, they exempted srotriya villages from taxes. However, the Brahmins during the time sold their lands, converting them into certificates, and abandoned the villages of their forefathers to settle in towns. This also meant something most unfortunate, severing their connection with the long Vedic tradition.
Our country has an ages- old tradition- and it is a glorious tradition- that has no parallel in any generation, worked not only for their own Atmic uplift but for the well- being of the entire society. And this they have done to the exclusion of being involved in worldly affairs. Later, however, they ( Brahmins ) failed to recognise the unique importance of such a tradition and broke away from it to take to the Western way of life. A situation soon arose in which others also forgot the importance of having a class of people devoting themselves solely to the Atmic quest.
For a general background, please see here