“The original source of knowledge is the Vedas. There are no branches of knowledge, either mundane or transcendental, which do not belong to the original text of the Vedas. They have simply been developed into different branches, They were originally rendered by great, respectable and learned professors.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.4.23 Purport)
That the Vedas are the original source of all knowledge is a little difficult to believe considering the way religion has come to be viewed. As religion today is more a matter of faith or allegiance inherited from your parents, the fact that supreme wisdom about every single piece of regulative information can be rooted in just one set of scriptures seems to hint at dogmatic insistence rather than impartial logic. How can something like dieting come from the Vedas? What about the branches of knowledge relating to computer science and engineering? How can that information have its roots in books compiled so long ago that no one can accurately date their inception? Just as there is loss in clarity once a video cassette tape is copied many times over, the more branches that are created from the original root of wisdom, the further the original source of information gets blurred. The fact that the origin can be forgotten or even denied as an authority figure shows just how far down the branches can descend. Nevertheless, the original source is still there, and anyone who is fortunate and wise enough to tap into it can see things clearly.
”One side says Krishna is God, while another says Jesus, and another says Muhammad, and so on. If they are not considered worshipable figures then they are at the very least prophets who are accepted as authorities. Even in the Vedic tradition, some worship Rama or Shiva or no one at all. How then can we consider any singular source to be the original?” Authority is established at the local level from the results that follow from accepting the claims of information. Someone can tell us an ironclad truth like, “the sky is blue”, but we have no reason to believe them just on their word. They could state something completely false and we’d have no way of knowing if they were incorrect. Based on the worthiness of the information as it pertains to meeting our interests, we can gradually learn to accept someone as an authority. Our hesitation can also be removed if other people that we respect give the same deference to that source.
With respect to the Vedas, the authority is firmly established after following the foremost recommendations. The fear we may have of falling victim to a bogus system of religion is ameliorated by the stock of great leaders and pious men who have followed the original scriptures of India, whose most concise and complete treatise is known as the Bhagavad-gita. This sacred text starts off with an issue that every man must address at some point: death. Immediately, the speaker of the Gita, Shri Krishna, states that the soul is the essence of identity and that the body is temporary. The soul does not cease to exist after death nor did it come into existence at the time of birth. The soul is always there, regardless of whether we can see it or not.
This information is the foundation for the rest of the knowledge the Vedas provide. The speaker of the Gita goes on to explain why there are so many different kinds of body. The living being enters a realm known as the material world, which consists of three different modes: goodness, passion and ignorance. These modes combine in varying proportions to create the material bodies of the many living beings. Since the combinations can be so many, there are up to 8,400,000 different species.
“According to one's existence under the various modes of nature, one evolves a particular kind of faith. The living being is said to be of a particular faith according to the modes he has acquired.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 17.3)
Based on the modes adopted, a living being develops a certain kind of faith. In the lower species, the faith relates strictly to sense pleasures. The animals don’t know anything beyond eating, sleeping, mating and defending because their bodies are made up almost entirely of the mode of ignorance. In the human form of body, there is variety in engagement. Though the original Veda, which was passed on by the same Shri Krishna at the beginning of time, was meant primarily for those in pure goodness, this doesn’t mean that other living beings are left out.
To understand the distinction, let’s say that because of the body type accepted, a person wants to associate with material nature instead of address the needs of the soul, which is the superior energy. The animals already turn onto this avenue by default, but the human being has the ability to decide in favor of either direction. Since the soul is superior, the Vedas are targeted specifically to meet its needs. Since the soul exists beyond the temporary manifestations of matter, the Vedas address the soul first, for matter is dull and lifeless. You can go up to a rock and explain Vedanta philosophy to it, but it will have no way to absorb the information or act upon it.
The discipline aimed at meeting the soul’s needs goes by several different names. Since the soul has an essential characteristic, or dharma, the disciplinary system aimed at reawakening and maintaining that characteristic is also known as dharma. Since the soul’s dharma is beginningless and endless, the system of regulation also bears the same properties. Hence religion in its purest form is known as sanatana-dharma. Notice the absence of sectarian designation. Notice that there is no mention of eternal damnation or heavenly felicity in this definition. In this way the Vedas present spirituality as a science, something that can be accepted by a rational thinking human being.
Since the essential quality of the soul is the propensity to serve, sanatana-dharma is also known as bhagavata-dharma, or devotional service. The service is carried out in a devotional attitude, with the desired aim being ananda, or bliss. Naturally, if the beneficiary of service is the reservoir of ananda, He would share that bliss with His servants. In this way we get one definition for God, or the Supreme Lord who is intimately tied to the spirit souls. From further study we learn that the living entities are part and parcel of Krishna, and that they struggle very hard in the material existence, a place where sanatana-dharma has to be taught and accepted through discrimination rather than just automatically adopted as the way of life.
“Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.5)
Isn’t saying that we come from Krishna a dogmatic principle? The fact that there is an entity superior to us has no bearing on sects or traditions. We already know that death is superior to us because it forces us to exit a body when we don’t want to. The irrepressible forces of nature also influence our behavior. If we were superior to nature we wouldn’t have to wait for the sun to come up in the morning or be forced to go to sleep at night. At the same time, we know that we are dominant over dull matter, as we can tell our body where to move and how to act.
The giant collection of material elements has a dominator, someone instigating its movements. Whether we call that person Krishna, God, or material nature is beside the point; the superior entity is there. Through interaction with the modes of nature, however, knowledge of one’s dharma and one’s relationship to the superior entity gets gradually lost. Why would the Vedas allow for this to happen? Why are there different systems of maintenance derived from the original bhagavata-dharma?
The living beings have independence in their choice of association. That is what it means to be superior to an inferior energy. For independence to really have value, the choice of endeavor must be able to fall on either side. This means that there are individuals who choose in favor of serving the inferior material nature over the superior God. Since all knowledge comes from the Vedas, even inferior information can be derived from the original texts. Someone who is attached to the body is thus open to take to systems of maintenance intended for the spiritual healing of the conditioned souls and use them for their own benefit.
Though there are countless examples that illustrate this exploitation, we can take something as simple as meditational yoga to see. Knowing about the soul is one thing, but actually acting off of that information properly is another. To account for the practical side, the Vedas institute various systems of maintenance aimed at enlivening the essential characteristic of the soul. One method is meditational yoga, where one sits in certain positions for extended periods of time and contemplates on the soul residing internally. Krishna reveals in the Gita that He expands into everyone’s heart and rests there as the Supersoul. Yoga means to link, so the meditational system exists to help connect the individual soul with the Supersoul.
As the soul is superior to inferior matter, one who maintains a link in consciousness to God learns to transcend the influence of the senses. Imagine having the flu but not feeling it. Imagine being injured in your leg but not having it affect you at all. Imagine not feeling the chilling cold or the scorching heat. Such abilities are present in the yogi, who only feels the soul and nothing else. Fast forward to today and you see that the ancient system of yoga is used only for the material health benefits and not for finding happiness for the soul. The ancillary benefits received from trying to connect with God are taken as the superior benefits. In fact, they are viewed as the only reason for taking up yoga. “Become healthy by following an ancient system of mysticism.”
The many systems seeking sense gratification are also rooted in the Vedas because information of the senses is first provided there. Without regulation there is no distinction between the animals and human beings. Depending on the aim desired, however, the level of “information clouding” from the original set of Vedic instructions can be very high. Though today more and more media is passed on digitally and thus doesn’t suffer from loss of quality, a few decades ago copying videotapes was a common practice. The problem you had with this method was that each time the tape got copied, the quality of the video degraded slightly. With more and more copies, or generations of video, the original picture could get skewered to the point that you didn’t even know what you were watching.
The same loss has occurred with the original set of information passed on by Krishna. Bhagavata-dharma is complete information because it helps the soul cope with a land where material nature has a dominating influence. With information on how to stop the influence of the senses, one can find the bliss that they are searching after. That being said, if one is given towards associating with one of the three modes of nature, they can grab ancillary information from the Vedas and use that to form their own system of maintenance. Hence you get different branches of knowledge.
As another example to show how the tree expanded, in the beginning stages of creation, there was only one caste in society: the brahmanas. Everyone was part of the priestly order, given to following religious principles aimed at establishing Brahman realization, which is the preliminary stage for connecting with God. With the passage of time came the introduction of the different castes: the warriors, merchants and laborers. With new class distinctions came new systems of maintenance, which aimed to help the members stay devoted to their particular occupational duties. As this system, known as varnashrama-dharma, is below bhagavata-dharma, it can be considered a branch of the original Vedas.
Within each branch there are also so many smaller pieces of information. Just imagine taking those smaller items and forming your own system of maintenance from them. For instance, the kshatriyas, the warrior caste, have regulations to follow to be able to become expert fighters, to be brave in combat, and to remain vigilant in their defense. One could easily focus on just one of these areas and then create their own disciplinary system off of it. Every system has a type of dharma, or essential characteristic, it is looking to maintain. A weight loss system aims to find a healthy bodily condition, a classroom knowledge of a particular field, and a self-help guide the ability to deal with a specific life condition.
Only bhagavata-dharma, however, addresses the needs of the spirit soul, who is beyond the temporary conditions, favorable or unfavorable, achieved through following the many branches of knowledge derived from Krishna’s original teachings. The original set of instructions still exists to be used. It has been protected by the saintly class of men and passed on through a tradition of spiritual master to disciple.
Whoever connects directly with Krishna and accepts all of His instructions will learn that the soul’s only business is to connect with God and that through that established yoga one can acquire the knowledge necessary for dealing with life’s other issues. Arjuna, the recipient of the Gita on that famous day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, used the sublime wisdom imparted to him to fight on without attachment in a difficult war. But more importantly he retained that information so that he could stay connected with Krishna. He who has the reservoir of pleasure at the forefront of their consciousness automatically stays in contact with the original source of supreme wisdom and thus has no reason to fear not knowing which path to take in life.
In Vedas glories of Shri Krishna are sung,
From it many branches of knowledge have sprung.
Like a generated tape there is loss in quality,
Each new copy from original further disparity.
Yet Krishna’s teachings still there to use,
Find meaning of life if we so choose.
Arjuna heard it from Lord and kept Him in mind,
Received victory and detachment combined.
Don’t be victim to useless benefits tantalizing,
Krishna’s company only goal worth realizing.