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Of the fourteen dharma-sthanas (the sources of knowledge of dharma), six are auxiliaries, four are sub-auxiliaries, and the Vedas are four, namely, Rig, Yajus, Sama and Atharvana.
The greatness of the Veda is limitless. Yet, on the empirical level we may understand its greatness in a way. Of the holy places in the world Kasi is believed to be the greatest. While speaking about other holy places, it is said that they are equal to Kasi. From this, the greatness of Kasi is evident. This place (i.e. Varanasi) is referred to as the Southern Kasi. Uthara Kasi is on the Himalayas. Vriddhachalam is known as Vriddha Kasi. Sometime ago I stayed at Bugga. That place is also called a Kasi. If there is a place referring to other sacred places, it is said: "This one is equal in greatness to Kasi, this other one is even a little greater".” There is a verse about Kumbakonam.
punayakshetra kritam papam
varanasyam kritam papam
kumbhakone kritam papam
The purport of this is that Kumbhakonam is holier than Kasi. By saying so, it is made evident that Kasi is holy in a special manner. By giving Kasi as the standard of comparison, its greatness gets increased. About a hundred years ago a great man composed a sloka about Kasi.
utthamanam api yad upamaya ka pi
ya pura rajadhan
ramya kasi sakasi bhavatu
bhuktaye mukthyaye nah
--Mahisha sataka vyakhyanam.
That which has become famous by being cited as the example for the most sacred places is Kasi. There, if one gives the money, which is, bhakti (devotion) one could easily get mukthi (release). The market where this is obtained is Kasi. This is what is stated in this sloka.
Similarly, the Veda which is great by virtue of its contents has received esteem in empirical usage also.
The Ramayana is a well-known epic. It is in different forms. The story of Rama has been told in plays, musical compositions, poems, etc. Everyone talks about the Ramayana. In Tamil, Kambar has sung the Ramayana in the vritta metre. Arunachala Kaviroyar wrote in the form of a play. There are versions of the Ramayana in all languages such as Marathi and Telugu. Kalidasa wrote the kavya “Raghuvamsa”. It mostly relates to the story of the Ramayana. King Bhoja composed the Ramayana campu. Bhavabhuti wrote the Uttararamacharitha. Ramabhadra Dikshita wrote a play called Janaki Parinaya. There are several types of Ramayana: Ananda Ramaykana, Tattvasangraha Ramayana, etc. To the question, why is the Ramayana so all-pervasive? One who has written the story of Rama replies thus: Just as sugar is put into the payasam prepared in any house, so the Ramayana is a necessary ingredient (of anything that is good). When there is no Pooja possible, some recite the Ramayana in its place. When the greatness of Ramayana which is so all-pervasive is referred to, it is said that it is the Veda.
The Mahabharatha is also called a Veda.
bharathah panchamo vedah.
Even as the Ramayana is held in esteem, the Vaishnavas hold in esteem the Thiruvaymozhi. It is said, “Maran Satagopan did the Veda into Tamil” Thus, that too is regarded as a Veda. In Tamil the most famous work on ethics is the Kural; and it is described as a Veda.
Thiruvalluvar wrote the Thirukkural. At that time there was in Madurai the last Sangam. There was a plank given by Lord Sundareswara. Those who had the necessary fitness could sit on it. If anyone did not possess the fitness, the plank would reject him. We are not inclined to believe this. But we are ready to believe that if a coin is put in, a ticket comes out of the machine kept for the purpose. Thiruvalluvar went to the Madurai Sangam taking his Kural with him. Generally scholars bestow no esteem on others. Because of this, one who is dull-witted cannot claim that he is a learned person. When taken in this way, the scholars’ attitude does some good. But that tendency should not be allowed to exceed the limit. That would be wrong. The members of the Madurai Sangam asked Thiruvalluvar to place the manuscript he took with him on the plank. It accommodated that manuscript alone, and threw out the other scholars who attempted to get on to it. This made the scholars realise the greatness of the Kural; and each one of them composed a verse praising the great work. One of them said thus:
“It is not easy to weigh the relative merits of Sanskrit and Tamil and say that one is superior to the other – because Sanskrit possesses the Veda, while Tamil has the Kural of Thiruvalluvar”. (Thiruvalluvar Malai).
It is well known that Thevaram and Thiruvachakam are regarded as the Tamil Veda. These fall within our religion. The Christians brought their scripture to this country. They named it Sathya Veda. Thus, when we consider the usage current in the world it is clear that the Veda is accorded special esteem. It is a well-known practice to refer to an established great test while speaking about the greatness of other texts.
At the end of the Dvapara age and at the beginning of Kaliyuga, i.e. about 5,000 years ago, Sage Vyasa classified the Veda into four parts. He was responsible for the coming into being of Uttharamimamsa, the eighteen Puranas, the Bharatha etc. He divided the Veda into branches, taking into consideration the ability of a single person to study and benefit by it. Each branch is called a sakha. Vyasa’s four disciples, Sumantu, Paila, Jaimini and Vaisampayana, learned from him the four Vedas namely, Rig, Yajus, Sama and Atharvana. Vyasa taught the Puranas to Suta. Therefore, in the Puranas it is mentioned that Suta spoke them.
In the Rig Veda there are many sakhas. Of them, only one Sakha is extant. It is known as the Aithareya sakha. For the Yajur Veda there were 101 sakhas. Of these, only three are extant. There were 1000 Sakhas for the Sama Veda. Only two of them are available now – Gautama sakha and Talavakara sakha. Not even one sakha of the Atharvana Veda is at present available. In Orissa (Utkal) in the North, there are eighteen sub/divisions of Brahmins. Of them, one group is known as Atharvanika. From the name we come to know that the forebears of this group should have studied the Atharvana sakha.
Vyasa divided the Veda into 1180 sakhas. At present only eight remain. (Although there were many more, Vyasa thought that number was enough for Kali age. That number itself has been so considerably reduced now.)
In a sakha are contained all topics that are necessary for a Brahmin to perform his karmas from birth to death.
ekam sakham adhithya srotriyo bhavathi.
The kings of those days used to grant what are known as srothriyam villages to a scholar who had studied an entire sakha. No tax would be levied on such villages. As those who studied the Veda had no other profession, it was known that they could not pay kist. Even now there is no-tax on srothriyam villages. It is only in our country that there have been generations of families who perform duties relating to spiritual welfare, without engaging themselves in secular professions. Therefore, our country has a greatness which will never be destroyed. Those foreigners who have come to know of our country’s greatness through Vivekananda and others hold us in high esteem. Paul Deussen of Germany says that there is no one greater than our Sankaracharya. He has studied well the Advaita sastras. He has sent a photograph of his to be placed in Kaladi, the birthplace of the Master. It is in our country that there is the power, which makes for instructing the Truth that is the Self. Those who study the Veda will not endeavour to ensure for themselves the means for empirical comfort. So, in order to keep them above want, the kings gave them a little land and levied no tax on it. Hence it was that in our country there were many srothriykas (those who had studied the Veda)