Why you should read the Vedas, and why the religious will never understand them
The most intriguing thing about the Vedas is their relative unpopularity among the religious; Google offers three times as many search results for “why you should read the Gita” as it does for “why you should read the Vedas”. And if you ask the religious (approach as gingerly as a cat approaching a flock of birds) for advice on reading the Vedas, they will basically tell you why you shouldn’t read the Vedas.
The religious will tell you that you need to be spiritually advanced before you can learn anything from the Vedas. They will tell you that even if you spent a lifetime learning Sanskrit, you wouldn’t know it well enough to understand the Vedas, and most English translations of the Vedas have a sinister political agenda. Besides, they say, the real wisdom of the Vedas is hidden (ironic for a text that is supposed to be “revealed wisdom”); without a “real” guru you can’t possibly crack the code. And you need to be spiritually advanced before you can hope to recognize a real guru. (Criticize the religious all you want, but they had perfected circular reasoning long before science invented the wheel.)
The religious aren’t keen on you reading the Vedas because they know—or at least the few among them who’ve actually read the Vedas know—that you’re probably not going to find any new wisdom or concept in the Vedas; a thousand philosophers have already integrated most of the key Vedic ideas into modern philosophy. The religious would rather you not read the Vedas and think they contain earth-shattering revelations than to have you read them, be disappointed and write an “emperor has no clothes!” post on your ungodly blog.
The truth is, the Vedas don’t meet the needs of the religious as well as other, later Hindu texts do. The religious want two things from any holy book: prescriptions for life (they don’t have to be moral, correct or even logical; they just need to be prescriptions), and a justification for them to invent new prescriptions for other people to follow. The Koran offers clear directives for the religious (e.g. clear Earth of anyone who is irreligious and/or annoying); the Gita outlines four plausible-sounding paths to enlightenment (Bhakti Yoga is currently trending in the Indian Twitter community); the Bible gives you lots of ways to judge what other people do in their bedrooms; but the Rigveda … well, the Rigveda offers lots of oblations to Agni and Indra (both apparently took an extended sabbatical from Hinduism after their award-winning performances in the Rigveda).
(And the Samaveda is basically a remix of the Rigveda, the Yajurveda is a soporific encyclopedia of rituals, and the Atharvaveda … no spoilers here, but it’s not hard to guess which gender is favored by the Atharvaveda‘s “choose your baby’s sex” mantra (Puṁsavana Saṁskāra))
What the religious really love about the Vedas, what sends them into a tantric trance, is how old the Vedas are. The religious apparently believe that the older the Vedas, the easier their “fight” for religious supremacy—”The Rigveda is ten thousand years old you say? That’s it; I won’t ridicule you guys any more; sign me up for Hinduism! (Can I be a Brahmin, please?)”
(Thought experiment: A thousand years from now, the Vedas will be a thousand years older. Will they then contain any more wisdom than they do now?)
Yes, all of the ambivalence the religious feel for the Vedas is justified; you probably shouldn’t be reading the Vedas as a holy book, as a book of answers, or as a book of spirituality. No—you should be reading the Vedas as something far simpler and deeper: as literature.
The most striking feature of the Vedas is that the Vedas are not the word of god*; the Vedas mostly consist of hymns addressed to the gods. This might seem like a mere literary detail, but it is refreshing to read a religious book where, for a change, mankind is the author and not the target audience.
(* The religious believe the Vedas to be of divine origin, but the Vedas themselves are written in first person, i.e. I, the man, talking to god. The Rigveda starts with “I glorify Agni …”, which is not exciting but hard to argue against. The Gita starts with “Dritirashtra said …”, which is the sort of statement that provokes an “Oh, really? You were in the room?” reaction in the reader. Well, at least it did in Neo.)
Equally striking, the Vedas offer very few crass rewards (such as eternal enlightenment) for believers, no punishments for straying from the path, no specific reasons why you should believe. The Vedas were probably the last time mankind, and certainly Indians, had an honest religious thought (if you can imagine a time when “honest religious thought” was not an oxymoron). Most later Hindu books feel like those creepy me-too tweets, blogs, books and lives that are “inspired” by someone else’s originality.
Let the religious obsess about the precise—i.e., Indian vs. European—zip-code of the authors of the Vedas; you should read the Vedas because they were written by a people who weren’t obsessed with zip-codes. (The Vedic authors seem to be the kind of people Thomas Friedman would love to write about.)
Let the religious bear the burden of proving the Vedas perfect; let them defend the terrible ideas that were first outlined in the Vedas. You should read the Vedas because they show us how we reached our current predicament, how we became a nation of religious people who lost all morality in a vulgar search for holiness; you should read the Vedas because they are the Gangotri of India’s social problems.
Let the religious claim that every language on Earth (except Tamil, of course) is an ugly derivative of Sanskrit; you should read the Vedas because Sanskrit is a beautiful language.
Let the religious search for the hidden meaning (“There must be! Something must be there!”) of the Vedas; you should read the Vedas for the Brahmandic atmosphere its poetry creates, because their authors felt that same honest, un-self-conscious wonderment at a universe as you do, because they had that same visceral reaction to the sun and water and wind as you do, because they loved nature the same way you do (except they probably had a lot more nature to love than you.)
Let the religious chant the Vedas on auto-pilot; you should read the Vedas because somewhere in them—in a place that the tone-deaf religious can never reach—is the reason we get goosebumps when we hear the komal re for the first time during an alaap of Raga Ahir Bhairav.
You should read the Vedas because they are deeply real, deeply flawed, and because they describe the first and perhaps the most genuine of human epiphanies: that there might be no answers, only beautiful questions.
“… But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know.”
—Nāsadīya Sūkta, 129th sūkta of the 10th mandala, Rigveda
P.S.: For all the “answers,” you will have to read the sequels to the Vedas: the Upanishads, which, like most sequels, ruin the mood by trying too hard to explain too much. Not surprisingly, the religious love the Upanishads.
P.P.S.: If you’re even moderately religious, you should read the Vedas as soon as possible, ideally before you get married—if you’re going to have a religious awakening, you’re better off having it now rather than ten years and two kids into a marriage. The sages say that ascending into the metaphysical plane and escaping the cycle of birth and death is much easier without your wife reminding you how much more fun you were in college, how you would have gotten that promotion if only you had marketed yourself better, and how she’d almost rather you had an affair (no, don’t try it; she’s just being dramatic.)
If Mrs. Neo was worried when she saw Neo reading the Rigveda on the treadmill, she didn’t let it show. But when Neo took a day off from work to read, poor Mrs. Neo panicked. At dinner that night, she reminded Neo that it had been a long time since he had had a guys’ night out. It had been less than a week but Neo still took her up on the offer—anything to reassure Mrs. Neo that his sudden Vedic interests were not foreshadowing a mid-life crisis.
As Neo sipped some yucky hipster-brand beer with the guys and tried to laugh along with their clichéd jokes—Neo would rather have a beer with Baba Ramdev than listen to jokes about him—Neo wondered: what would Mrs. Neo’s offer have been if Neo had not spent the day reading the Rigveda, but instead a certain other holy book of a Religion That Must Not Be Named? Perhaps Mrs. Neo would be scared enough to finally let Neo cash in that rain-check Neo got instead of his bachelor’s party?
(Not that the bachelor’s party would be worth it.)