If we really want to understand Buddhism (theoretically, not in a Zen-like style), we must learn about the history of India. We must learn about a particular kind of history, the religious history. If there is something that defines Indian religion, it is the influence of the Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest surviving religious texts in India.
Modern historians say the earliest hymns in the Vedas are from about 1500 to 1000 B.C. According to Hindu tradition, the wisdom embodied in the Vedas is timeless because it has no origin. It existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Vedas, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.
The Vedas form a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation. (Honestly, quite boring to read for the most part).
Some Hindus even maintain that the Vedas contains all knowledge, even the principles of nuclear physics and the distance between heavenly bodies (try to deduce that from the hymns). A few even claim that the reason the West attained such rapid technological and scientific progress is because Westerners appropriated Vedic knowledge when its contents where revealed in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Vedas, Sanskrit, Iran and Ireland. What?
These hymns were composed, or heard, if that is the correct verb to use, in an early form of the Sanskrit language. This is a language that is closely related to Latin and Greek and to many of the languages in Europe.
The people who spoke Sanskrit called themselves the Aryans. The word Aryan in classical Sanskrit means simply a noble person, and it is found in the names of two countries in the modern world. You might ask yourselves whether you can think of them before I say them.
One of the countries is Iran. The other one is Ireland. Many people say I’m crazy because I say this, but believe me. If you aren’t so sure, ask your local Sanskrit teacher.
Much of European civilization, like the civilization of India, is derived from the traditions of these ancient people, who might had migrated out of central Asia in the middle of the second millennium BCE and settled as far West as Ireland and far South as India.
The Familiar Gods of the Vedas
The hymns of the Vedas were sung in ritual actions to invoke and to praise the gods, or devas. The word deva is related to the word divine and Theos.
Many of these gods are also closely related as individuals to the gods of classical Greek and Latin mythology. The Vedic god Dyaus, for example, who is a great god of the heavens, is related to Zeus. The god of rain, known as Indra, is related to Thor, the god of thunder in Norse mythology. The god of fire called Agni is related with our word ignite.
How These Hymns Were Used
The hymns of the Vedas were sung by the priests and the Brahmin as part of a complex sacrificial ritual (because of that, there is no need to explain it in detail here).
These sacrifices still go on today in India, as the Vedas are still chanted and they are in some sense the core identity of the Brahmin cast in India. The Brahmin are the ancient priestly cast that was in one time and in many respects still today the custodians of the great religious traditions of ancient India.
By now, you may a have some knowledge of what the Vedas are and what they represent for India, but how are they related to Buddhism? Is it its sacred book? Like the Bible? No! Buddhism actually rejects the notions of the Vedas. The vedas, however, influenced the Buddha in his thinking and manners. This is why we need to know this information, to understand better the Buddha. How the Buddha was influenced we will see in another article.