Even today, more than five thousand years after the origin of the Vedas, a Hindu simply cannot visualize a good life without the observance of the Vedic principles. When a child is born, when he is later baptized with the thread ceremony, when he is married, and finally, when he dies, there always will be Vedic ceremonies. Whether it is a new business, sickness in the family, or a religious festival, Hindus always look toward their religious priests to guide them, bless them, and give them eternal support.
In the beginning, rituals were a very important part of Hindu worship. The main function of these rituals was to usher in a solemn and sacred atmosphere and prepare the devotee to receive the hymns of knowledge in the most appropriate manner. The real teaching was, of course, conveyed in the hymns of knowledge. Clarified butter (known as ghee), rice, and many other things were offered as sacrifice in the fire of the Havan Yajna, an ancient Hindu ritual of Aryan origin. Later in the Upanishad scriptures, the sages downplayed the importance of the rituals. It was felt that followers were paying too much attention to them, while ignoring the real teachings of the knowledge of the Divine.
Rituals are the symbolic deeds for sacrifice (yajna), which is considered to be the basis of a good life. Rituals would prepare a person to perform various duties properly; they were not meant to be the end in itself.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the actions performed by an individual are considered to be the ritual sacrifice, thus introducing the concept of karma, which has now become a household word in the West, too. Karma is identified as our good or bad deeds, and we may reap the effects of our actions during this life, as well as in future lives. The Gita’s emphasis shifted toward the actual practice of what was preached: “If the devotee does not practice what he learns, it would be hypocrisy.” In more recent times, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi emphasized service as the yajna ritual.
Throughout millennia, there have been many vital and significant changes in the Hindu philosophy. The caste system of the Vedic period still prevails, but it has been modified considerably. The evil practice of “untouchability” has been abolished in the constitution. The Rig Veda states, “In Mankind, nobody is higher or lower, nor is anybody of middle status” (5.59–60). This gives ample evidence that the caste system was not hereditary in character in the early Vedic period. Later, it is mentioned in the Mahabharat: “Neither birth nor sacraments nor study nor ancestry can decide whether a person is twice-born (i.e. a Brahmin); character and conduct only can decide.”29
In Hindu society, a woman’s position and status also have undergone many changes. In the early Vedic period, women were barred from reading the Holy Scriptures. Views and attitudes, however, changed soon. Along with male gods, there appeared many female goddesses, some of them even more powerful and more revered than their male counterparts. The male dominance of the Vedic era soon met its first challenge. In the Upanishads we encounter two very fierce female scholars, Maitreyi and Gargi, who pose most arduous and demanding questions to the learned sages.
In the Hindu scripture Manu Shastra, it is recommended that a woman always remain under the protection of a man. As a child, she may be under the supervision of her father; after marriage, her husband may protect her; and if she becomes widow, she must live with her son. This has been resisted by some as a sign of weakness and inferiority of women, but such a practice may also provide much-needed security for weak and vulnerable females–this was especially so in the ancient times, when hard manual work was required for daily existence. It may be pointed out that in the same scripture, women are also idolized:
“Mother excels even a thousand fathers in glory.” 30
The combined and extended family system in Hindu society provided abundant scope of social participation to women at all levels. Even today, Hindu society generally abhors the idea of women living on their own. Yet the tragic reality is that the injustices and humiliations of both the lower caste and the female sex did continue for thousands of years—human weakness prevailed!
The changes in the Hindu society, as perhaps in all other societies, have not come easily. There has been stiff resistance at many junctures, although there have been no quarrels and blood-shed in such matters in the Hindu society. Along the long passage, some reformist movements formed new, separate religions and sects, but the new ideas did not always prevail for long. The followers of the new faith often reverted to the rituals and customs of their own! The evolution of the human mind cannot be hastened. It moves at its own pace.
It is important to realize that there is always a human agency associated with the functioning of any religion. Many present-day leaders in the Hindu religion have underscored the need for change and modification, when the situation demands. For instance:
Sri Ramakrishna Paramhans, an apostle of Hinduism and a modern messiah, has clearly stated that in Vedas, the sand is often mixed in with dough. We should chew with care, discarding the sand.
Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the worldwide organization Self-Realization Fellowship, has likewise asserted that the teachings of all the sages need to be modified according to time and situation, keeping the basic truth of the Vedas intact.
Swami Sachchidanand, a prominent saint from Gujarat, India, has written in unambiguous terms that the Vedas may be God-inspired, but human beings revealed them. There will, therefore, always be an element of human error, which may be rectified as necessary.
American philosopher J. B. Pratt made the following relevant remarks: “The reason for the immortality of the Vedic religion of Hinduism is that while retaining its spiritual identity, it has been changing its outward form in accordance with the demands of the time; and particularly it is the only religion which has been able to meet the challenges of science, which governs the thought and life of the Modern age.”
The average Hindu youth today perhaps does not have a proper concept of the Vedas. Some might even think that the Vedas are outdated and irrelevant. This is not true. In fact, the Vedas have stood the test of time most admirably. There are, at present, numerous institutes and places of worship all over the world that teach the principles and practices of the ancient Vedic philosophy of India. There is a full-fledged Vedic township and university, which was started by the renowned Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the state of Iowa in the United States, and there is the International Vedic Hindu University in Orlando, Florida. Catholic theologian Raimundo Panikkar wrote a scholarly book, The Vedic Experience, while living in Banares, India, from 1964 to 1976.31 There is a phenomenally fast-growing interest in Hindu philosophies of meditation, yoga, non-violence, Ayurveda, and many other Vedic subjects likea stronomy, cosmology, health-science, philosophy, and logic etc.
Vedas have indeed come to stay, not only in Hindu society but also in the rest of the world, as part of the common spiritual heritage of man-kind.
Hinduism is also called the Vedic religion, as Vedas are the very foundation of this faith. Even today, all Hindus commonly practice Vedic rites, including the ones settled outside of India. Nonetheless, changes to the same have been made time and again. The original rites have been considerably modified; the lengthy, repetitive rites have often been replaced with shortened, meaningful ones. Yet, prolonged “Havan” ceremonies lasting over several hours, with hundreds of devotees participating and scores of priests chanting together are not a rare sight! The old and the new run hand in hand. An individual may opt for any as per his/her choice. Many respected saints and sages have drawn attention to the shortcomings of some Vedic customs, but none have ever downplayed the importance of the Vedas. Over time, suggestions have been incorporated to supplant the Vedic rites with “actual deeds-karma” or “service actions”, but the Vedic ceremonies and sacraments do continue to survive over the millennia in one form or another.