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Gita Lesson - 0103: Overview of Four Vedas

Bhagavad Gita
Unit - 01
Lesson - 0103: Overview of Four Vedas
By Raja Subramaniyan

Gita is the essence of the four Vedas namely, Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The meaning of the term Veda is knowledge. One of the Upanishads declares the purpose of Vedas (and Gita) is to guide the humankind to move from (1) ignorance to wisdom, (2) from mortality to immortality and (3) from false to truth.

It is already seen that human beings are superior compared to all other living beings due to a differentiating factor called self-awareness. This self-awareness is the foundation on which the superior human intelligence has grown.

This superior intelligence is an instrument using which human beings are supposed to master the art of living.

The purpose and proper usage of our intelligence is prescribed in Vedas. It is like a user manual that comes with any sophisticated instrument. How to operate our body/mind complex is explained in the user manual called Vedas. Only by using this User Manual, we can reach new heights, hitherto unimagined. We can go where science and economic development cannot take us. The unprecedented growth in the standard of living is not accompanied by increase in quality of life, since many do not take advantage of this User Manual.

Vedas prescribe Dharma. Dharma means 'that which preserves'. Adhering to Dharma is essential to preserve and sustain existence.

Dharma is classified into two categories namely, Active Dharma and Passive Dharma. The initial part of all the Vedas, called 'Veda Poorva', prescribes Active Dharma and the ending part called 'Veda Anta' (Vedanta, which translates into 'knowledge-end', meaning that there is nothing more to know beyond this, is a collection of 108 major Upanishads), prescribes Passive Dharma.

Active Dharma is further subdivided as Ordinary Dharma and Special Dharma.

Ordinary Dharma Vs Special Dharma

Ordinary Dharma is eternal in nature. It remains same for all people, at all places and at all times. Examples of Ordinary Dharma are, 'do not steal' or 'do not hurt'. Ordinary Dharma is inherently known to all the human beings even without any teaching. An easy way to identify an Ordinary Dharma is to check one's expectation from others with respect to general behavior. All others in the world expect the very same behavior from us.

Example: I do not like any one talking rudely to me. This means that I should not talk rudely to anyone too.

This is Ordinary Dharma.
Special Dharma is that Dharma which changes from person-to-person, place-to-place and time-to-time.

Example: Everyone should work to their best of their ability in their chosen profession. What is best varies person-to-person, place-to-place and time-to-time.

Special Dharma includes all the personal and professional duties taken up by an individual. Special Dharma is also known to people through general awareness. Everyone knows that one should not cross the yellow line or litter the roads.

Example: A student should study, a husband/father must provide financial support to the family and a doctor must do his best to save a patient from death. These are all examples of Special Dharma.

Special Dharma keeps changing.

Example: Abortion was not allowed earlier. Now it is allowed.
One can wear jeans and t-shirt but not while going to college.
Employees of essential services cannot go on strike.

When there is a contradiction between Ordinary Dharma and Special Dharma, the latter prevails.

Example: A police officer should obey the orders of his superior and shoot in an encounter, violating the Ordinary Dharma of non-violence.

Active Dharma Vs Passive Dharma

Active Dharma is action oriented and Passive Dharma is knowledge oriented. One can do action on behalf of others but each person has to gain the knowledge through individual effort. Action is the stepping-stone for knowledge.

Active Dharma helps human beings to progress in life and live a life that is superior to other living beings. As the name suggests both Ordinary and Special Dharma are action oriented in the form of Do's and Don'ts.

Even if a few individuals do not follow the Active Dharma, it is possible for humanity as a whole to progress. This is so because the result comes from action and action by majority can compensate the inefficiency of few.

Example: Mongolians (who did not follow the Ordinary Dharma) frequently invaded China and hampered the economic growth. By building the Great Wall, emperors of China protected their citizens. Thus, the majority can prevail over minority.

However, Passive Dharma prescribed in Vedanta requires individual effort. It is knowledge oriented and everyone has to learn and gain knowledge for himself. Each individual can follow the prescribed path and reach the ultimate destination without being influenced by the progress made by other members of the society.

Thus, Active Dharma is prescribed in the form of action for the welfare of the human society as a whole. Economic development and making the world a better place to live is the objective of the Vedas, while prescribing the Active Dharma.

Passive Dharma is prescribed in the form of gaining knowledge for enabling the individual to improve the quality of his life and enable Joyful Living.

Passive Dharma can be attempted only when one practices Active Dharma for a length of time until his mind is matured enough to understand the teaching of Vedanta. Passive Dharma, guides the human being to over come the only disadvantage of self-awareness, namely suffering in life. As seen earlier, man suffers various negative emotions, unlike the animals. These sufferings can end if one follows the prescribed steps of acquiring knowledge that is revealed in the Vedanta.

Active Dharma deals with material pursuit and Passive Dharma deals with spiritual pursuit.

All living beings want to avoid suffering and be happy all the time. Only human beings are capable of reaching the goal and they can do so only if they follow the prescriptions given in Vedas. Vedas prescribe Active Dharma as the first step and Passive Dharma as the second and final step to meet this objective.

Gita contains both the Active Dharma and Passive Dharma. Therefore, it can be called as the fifth Veda. Studying and understanding Gita is equal to understanding all the four Vedas. The result of such understanding is Joyful Living.

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