Thursday, May 14, 2015
Ramayana: Bridging Puranic and Vedic Hinduism
I would like to start off with the title which to my mind is itself misleading because I don't think there exists a specific dichotomy between Puranic and Vedic Hinduism.
To be more precise the dieties associated with the Puranas such as Shiva,Brahma,Vishnu,Ganesha, Karthikeya, Durga are not theologically distinct from Indra, Agni,Vayu, Varuna et al but a continuation and or amalgalm of them.
One of the reasons I prefer the Ramayana apart from the fact that it reads as a great thriller and adventure story is that it is more concise, linear,coherent and has sense of continuity and parallel story of the "Vedic era" as opposed to celebration of inconsistencies, jumbled structure and confusion that comprises much of the narrative of the Mahabharata.
As with all great kings, the geneology is of prime importance hence we see the Ikshaku stalwart Sagar defeated the mlecchas from northwestern India, brought Ganga down to earth on the physical and spiritual realm and hosting and sponsoring the Sagara Manthana(churning of the ocean) which implies a gathering of scholars and sages who would churn the scriptures of their essence to generate new ideas and philosophies as one churns milk to make various lacto products.
Much of this finds its way into the corpus Vedanta /Upanishads. Upanishads loosely translated meaning sit close and listen ie the guru when he was feeling generous would explain the result of the ideas in the Vedas to his pupil rather than them simply memorize and chant the relevant portion all day.
Now the King Sagara was quite a few generations removed from Rama so one would assume that the Sagara Manthana was completed during his reign. But that is unlikely as there are indications it was a long project which went on for decades if not centuries. Hence an older vanara narrated to Rama how he gathered herbs during the Sagara Manthana (probably contributed to the creation of deity Dhanvantri who codified the Ayurveda)
It is around this time that Shiva makes his first appearance in a very "Vedic" era as a restrainer and upholder of Ganga's flow as well as Nilakantha, capturing the left over toxic residue of the Sagar Manthana(probably the objectionable and evil ideas) and making sure the Shaivite scholars keep their lips sealed about these matters even if their psyches were affected so that the ideas do not spread out thereby cause harm to others.
Later on another sage associated with Shiva and his dieties(Karthikeya or Subramanya, the latter term once associated with Indra but later applied solely to Skanda/Karthikeya) but also the most famous Vedic verse Gayatri Mantra.
All the while the antagonists Parasurama and Ravana all have prior run ins with Shiva where they incur his displeasure.
So what do we see? Vedic and Puranic deities are developing in parallel rather than in a linear fashion where Puranic follows Vedic as is commonly assumed.
Vedic dieties are nothing more than the building blocks for Puranic dieties - take a Chandra here, some Rudra there , burn some Kama in the process and you've got yourself a Shiva!
And on and on it goes with other dieties.
Vedas and Puranas are therefore not a separate and discrete entities but constantly compliment each other. Now there was greater quality control in the Vedas as they were the base and dealt with plainly religious matters and not much political history but since Puranas did deal with both, quite a few wild eyed Puranic accounts of various kings which defy logic and sound history not to mention Vedic tradition found its way into the canon over the years. Especially in the medieval era.
But all in all if you want an elegant understanding of the evolution ,nature and structure of Vedic Hinduism,look no further than the Ramayana.