Followers of Sanatana-dharma base their beliefs upon the ancient scriptures known as the Vedas. The Vedas were divided into four books– the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda – by Sri Vyasa who is considered to be the literary incarnation of Godhead. Since the Vedas cannot be traced to an author they are traditionally considered by their followers to be ‘apaurusheya’ – not written by ordinary human beings.
According to the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, the Vedas originate from the breath of the Supreme Lord, which makes them the original, complete, and only true source of spiritual wisdom –
asya mahato bhutasya nihsvasitam etad rgvedo
yajur vedah sama vedatharvaìgirasa itihasah
puranam vidya upanisadah slokah sutrany
anuvyakhyanani sarvani nihsvasitani
From the Supreme Person’s breath came the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva), the histories (Mahabharata, and Ramayana), the Puranas, the Upanishads, the verses and Sutras and all the anuvyakhyas (commentaries).
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great Gaudiya Vaishnava teacher of the 19th Century, writes thus in his book, ‘Mahaprabhu’s Teachings’ –
The Vedic scriptures are the only source of all authoritative wisdom according to words mentioned therein, as in ‘asya mahato bhutasya nisvasitametat’. The Vedic instruction as obtained through disciplic succession by Brahma etc. as the closest associates of the Supreme Godhead, according to the words ‘brahma devanam prathamah samvabhuva’ as stated in the Mundaka Upanishad, must be considered as the Vedas and not dry arguments and speculation; and that those are the only Vedic maxims.
‘Dharmam tu saksad bhagavat-pranitam’ – real religion is never man-made but is established by the Supreme Lord. Any religion which can be traced back to a mundane personality can never be eternal and is sure to perish sooner or later, since every fallible human that takes birth is infected with the following four defects –
- The tendency to commit mistakes,
- The tendency to become illusioned,
- The tendency to cheat others
- The tendency to be limited by imperfect senses
Thus direct perception, inference, and so forth are deficient, especially since these means of knowledge cannot help one gain access to the inconceivable spiritual reality.
The Vedic literatures are self-evident. Hence, one should accept them as they are.
svatah pramana veda- pramana-siromani
laksana haite svatah pramanata hani
The self-evident Vedic literatures are the highest evidence of all, but if these literatures are interpreted, their self-evident nature is lost. (Chaitanya-charitamrita 1. 7. 139)
However, in this day and age, to study the four Vedas is practically impossible. Firstly, to understand the mystical language found therein one has to first study the six Vedangas – Shiksha (the science of pronunciation), Kalpa (the process of performing Vedic sacrifices), Vyakarana (grammatical rules), Nirukta (the derivatives of difficult Sanskrit words found in the Vedas), Jyotisha (astronomy and astology) and Chanda (the poetic metres in which the Vedas are chanted).
Secondly, only aproximately six-percent of the Vedas is available to us today. Thirdly, the esoteric language that the Vedas are written in takes years of study. Thus, the wise have concluded that we should determine the meaning of the Vedas by studying the Puranas.
The eighteen Puranas are histories of ancient India compiled by Sri Vyasa after he divided the Vedas and Upanishads. The Puranas are mostly stories in the form of conversations between great personalities.The stories found in the Puranas are meant to illuminate the meanings of the Vedas. In the Narada Purana, Shiva tells his consort Durga, “O Fair One, I consider the significance of the Puranas to outweigh that of even the Vedas. The Vedas all find a firm resting place in the Puranas.”
The Puranas are easier to understand than the Vedas as the Sanskrit used in them is much more simple and straightforward. They help us to understand the cryptic words of the Vedas and therefore they are sometimes known as the ‘Fifth Veda’.
However, we also run into another problem with the Puranas. Vyasa divided the eighteen Puranas according to the three qualities of conditioned souls, ie. goodness, passion and ignorance. Those Puranas in the mode of goodness extol the glories of Vishnu to be Supreme, those in the mode of passion glorify the demigod Brahma or Goddess Durga and those in the mode of ignorance advocate the worship of Shiva. So which of the Puranas should we follow?
The different Puranas were arranged according to the different modes in response to the various desires and interests of the conditioned souls. Nevertheless, every Purana contains glorification of Lord Vishnu or Krishna, the Absolute Truth. Vyasa has included such glorification so that even persons in the lower material modes can gradually develop faith in the Supreme Lord by hearing or reading the Puranas that are in the modes of passion and ignorance. Puranas in the mode of goodness are considered to be the highest. As the Padma Purana states, sattvika moksa-dah proktah - “Puranas in the mode of goodness give liberation.” However, even amongst Puranas in the mode of goodness there are various opinions. Some say that the path of yoga is the highest, some claim that the path of jnana (speculative knowledge) is best, while others state that bhakti (devotion) is supreme.
The last work of Sri Vyasa, Srimad Bhagavatam or the Bhagavata Purana, is considered to be the crown jewel of all the Vedic literatures.
sarva-vedanta-saram hi sri-bhagavatam isyate
tad-rasamrta-trptasya nanyatra syad ratih kvacit
Srimad Bhagavatam is declared to be the essence of all Vedanta philosophy. One who has felt satisfaction from its nectarean mellow will never be attracted to any other literature. (Srimad Bhagavatam 12.13.15)
Furthermore, it is stated in the Garuda Purana –
artho’yam brahma-sutranam bharatartha-vinirnayah
This Bhagavata Purana is the meaning of the Vedanta-sutras, it explains the purport of the Mahabharata and it is the commentary on the Gayatri Mantra. It is filled with the complete explanation of all the Vedic knowledge.
The very name of the Srimad Bhagavatam reveals its superior position. Srimat means ‘beautiful’, and bhagavata means ‘related to the Supreme Lord.’ Srimad Bhagavatam therefore refers to the most beautiful literary creation because it describes the beautiful pastimes of the Supreme Lord.
Hence, one should accept the Vedic literatures – and in particular the Srimad Bhagavatam – as the sole authority for advancement in one’s spiritual journey and try to understand its conclusion under the guidance of a spiritual preceptor in a bona-fide disciplic succession.