All the students as well as teachers at both the convention centers were up by 4 AM. Some of them were queuing up in front of bathrooms while the remaining had began revising the parts of the Veda which they had studied. It was heartening to see their commitment to their studies as most of them had begun revision the first thing in the morning!
By 5.30 AM everyone was performing Sandhyavandana and Agnikaryas at the spots specially allotted on balconies, porticos and gardens nearby. The organizers had gone to great lengths in terms of making all the necessary arrangements so that none of the students would miss their daily Agnikarya.
The main competition began immediately after breakfast. The students would report to the appropriate examination room based on the Veda and Shakha(Branch) that they were to be tested on. They entered the competition room in turns as their serial numbers and names were called out. Every examination room had two eminent scholars who were designated as the examiners. The examiners were carefully selected based on their expertise and belonged to different shaakhas of all the four Vedas.
There were students from Shaakala Branch of the Rigveda, Kaanva and Maadhyandini branches of the Shukla Yajurveda, Taittireya Branch of the Krishna Yajurveda, Ranayani, Kouthumi and Jaimini Branches of the Samaveda, Pippalada and Shounakeya branches of Atharvaveda.
The Chief examiner and advisor of the event, Sri. Krishnamurty Shastri, remembered the Kanchi Paramacharya’s great efforts to preserve the Pippalada Branch of Atharvaveda in Tamil Nadu. “Pippalada” literally means one who eats pippala i.e. leaves. Krishnamurthi Shastri also said that due to lack of food, the scholars of this shaakha used to survive on pippala leaves and worked hard to pass on the shakha to the next generation, thereby giving this shakha it’s name. “These days we don’t have to survive on leaves. We at least have proper food to eat” Krishnamurty Shastri added.
Two types of examination exist in the oral tradition, namely – Khanda Pareeksha and Grantha Pareeksha. A Khanda is a chosen portion of the Veda and a Grantha is a complete samhita of one Veda. Both khanda competitors and grantha competitors were present for the examination. It was also delightfully heartening to witness 12-13 year old boys, who had completely memorized one Veda Samhita were ready to sit for the examination at one go.
When a pupil enters the examination room, he recites his Gotra-Pravara and prostrates in front of both examiners and sits on a mat laid down for him. The examiners go through his evaluation sheet, where details of chapters to be examined are written. Each student might have selected different chapters/portions or complete scripture, based upon his own preparation and confidence. There will be no fixed and uniform syllabus for all students to be examined.
Since the examiners knows the Grantha in and out, they spontaneously decide what question to ask a particular student without referring to any question papers or books. Generally, the examiners pick a difficult question. Half a line or one paada of a mantra is uttered. The student then has to pick it up and continue further till the end of the varga or anuvaka. If the student fails to complete the varga or anuvaka, the examiner might decide to ask another one from the same adhyaya. Sometimes students are asked to recite two vargas from each adhyaya to be examined. Based on the student’s accurate pronunciation, swara, laya and maadhurya, the examiner decides to grade the pupil as Uttama, Madhyama or Atyuttama. Instead of considering each answer separately, the overall performance is considered while evaluating the student. Each branch of each Veda has different patterns of swara and different rules of pronunciation, based on its own pratishakhya. Therefore there is no uniform way of evaluation for all shakhas.
There exists a tradition of showing the swara along with a hand sign while reciting orally – this is still intact in the Samaveda and the Madhvandina branch of the Shukla Yajurveda. Hence, hand gestures also need to be considered while evaluating pupils of those shakhas. Examiners also ensure that the student is performing his nityakarma by asking tricky questions regarding the same. They also consider the way he prostrates and introduces his lineage by uttering his Gotra-Pravara when he enters the examination room. It might be difficult for people from the modern age to understand that the manner in which a boy is wears his ‘uttareeya’ (upper garment) also indicates how much traditional training he has obatined. It is worn according to the situation he is in. There is no need to mention the importance of the ‘Shikha’ in a Vedic student’s life. Every one of these aspects will be considered by the examiners and students will be corrected immediately if found necessary.
By afternoon of the third day, almost every student had gone through his individual examination session. The students were relaxed post lunch, playing various indoor games and enjoying their free time at their respective accommodations. Organizers had to go out and request them to be present at Antakshari which was organized at the play ground opposite the convention center.
The students unwillingly stopped their games and came downstairs. However, the moment they realized that there would be an Antakshari session, they all seemed exited. Students were asked to sit in separate groups according to the branch of the Veda they belong to, accompanied by two scholars belonging to that particular branch.
One of the chief trustee, Sri Narayanan, who was monitoring the antakashari groups asked me to sit with the Rigveda group as monitor since the examiners for the Rigveda were still busy finishing the examinations of a remaining few students. I kept my camera, voice recorder and notepad aside and sat down with pupils.
The Antakshari itself is played in a manner similar to the familiar Antakshari that we all play with songs from the movies. One student recites a mantra and stops wherever the monitor asks him to stop. Anyone from the group is supposed to start a new mantra or Rik beginning with the alphabet which the previous person stopped with. Volunteers were standing nearby with books and they presented a book as prize and applauded each time a pupil spontaneously picked a mantra and finished it with ease. Similar to the regular Antakashari, a few played aggressively and the others were left behind. A volunteer later told me that the boys who hadn’t won any prizes too would be given a chance to have a go later.
After the Antakshari, Gurupooja had been organized in the main auditorium. More than 80 Vedic scholars were felicitated, out of which more than 20 were ghanapaathis. Organisers performed paada pooja to all the vedic pandits present and offered them fresh garments, tambula and fruits along with Dakshina. Many couples from Chennai were lined up to perform paadapooja of Vedic pundits. Since the Veda is Shabdabrahman, a person who has completed the adhyayana is also considered to be holy. Each pandit’s feet were washed and they were worshipped similar to how a devata is worshipped in a temple. Couples from Chennai who got the chance to perform paadapooja felt satisfied about the same.
As explained in the first part of this report, Vedadhyayana is not just a set of courses which one completes and gets a degree. It requires certain Poorvajanma samskaras along with practices to be followed during the adhyayana. Self-study of mantras is considered useless and prohibited in the tradition, because one needs to get upadesha of each mantra from a Guru. Traditionalists assert the need for “Guru mukha Adhyayana” instead of self-study. One needs to follow certain rules while receiving the the upadesha, which are known as Bramhacharya ashrama. Mere study of meaning without observing the aashrama Dharma is considered futile as it doesn’t produce any adhidaivika impact and is done without required samskaras.
Along with the complete Veda, the students have to study all six Vedangas. There are two divisions in the Kalpa(one of the Vedangas) which are known as Shrouta sutras and Gruhya sutras. Apart from the study of these sutras, students have to practically learn the methods to use these mantras which is known as Prayoga. Each shakha has it’s own prayoga system based on the sutras. Apart from these, students are supposed to study Sanskrit literature and grammar as well for linguistic proficiency before beginning to study any of six darshanas. Along with this complete system of the Veda, students study the six Darshanas. Some people might choose to go further and study commentaries of a complete Veda. They cannot miss the Dharma Shastra which are irreplaceable as guides for morality and conduct. This complete system of education requires at least twenty years of fully dedicated time to be completed. If a person starts at the age of eight, he might end up being 28 years old when he completes the study of the commentaries.
Modern society expects these students to learn English and sciences along with this and also get a PhD. It seems unnecessary to push Vedic pundits into a race to produce PhDs. If a Vedic pandit has to go to the university and get a PhD, naturally he will be compromising on his traditions and aacharas. Neither will he end up a good researcher nor will he remain a pandit.
Most people however, fail to appreciate the Vedic shiksha described herein. The pandits are not considered to be scholars by many simply because they do not speak English and don’t present papers at seminars.
An oft-heard remark when discussing the topic of the Vedic studies in the present times is that most students who enter the Gurukulas venture into paurohitya instead of learning English, the various sciences and pursuing the path of scholarship in them. It is often felt only by choosing the latter path can there be any contribution to national growth.
These musings leave me wondering about the general understanding of Vedic scholarship in our age and this condescending attitude towards the same saddens me. However, I feel relieved after looking at the students enthusiastically entering Gurukulas to learn the Vedas, who swear their loyalty to their Vedic tradition without getting upset over these largely misinformed notions. Learning the Veda is much more than learning to recite a few mantras which are to be uttered in a ritual setting. Imagine the embarrassment if somebody were to address a gathering of veteran classical singers and musicians and chide them for not being scholars and presenting conference papers! Of course, it is not accurate on my part to compare an art form like classical music with the Veda, but I hope that this analogy conveys my point.
I had met a person with similar views in Uttar Pradesh a few weeks ago; He is a professor at a prestigious University and also runs a Sanskrit gurukula with his own charitable trust. He was of the opinion that “we teach “vedpath” in the first year. Thereafter we allow students to choose their favorite subject. After all, everyone should know how to recite mantras.”
I interrupted and shot at him – “Do you consider a human being to be a mere voice recorder, which is capable of playing it back whenever you press the play button? If so, why are you wasting one year of each student? Instead of training them to chant mantras, please use a tape recorder with which you can play audio files. Several good recordings of mantras are available in the market.”
He was taken aback and unable to understand my point. People often mistake a mantra to be a prayer or a song. They believe that it is not such a big deal and can be learnt by everyone within a few months and move on to something else. They have little idea about how much time, hard work and tapasya it takes to complete the adhyayayna of a Veda. The Vedas are not just a motely collection of hymns. There is a tapasya attached to the process of learning it. In the name of overall cultural education, we are trying turn people into “sarvajnas” instead of nurturing “Visheshajnana” – the specialized knowledge of a domain. Understanding the bits and pieces of everything is of no practical importance for an individual or a society.
Political pressure in Independent India and the influences of modernity including reform movements such as the Arya Samaj have successfully brainwashed many into believing that performing pourohitya, murthy pooja and following the Dharma Shastra is bad. Some people look down upon and make derogatory comments on purohits, acharyas, pandits and temple pujaris even though they pretend to be saviors of Hinduism. It must be understood however, that if Hindu Dharma is alive today, it is due to these Purohits and pujaris who have somehow managed to withstand the onslaught of Western modernity and have continued to guide people in their household practices. Dharma doesn’t reside in scholarly books and conferences. It thrives through the practices which are still intact in the houses and hearts of the people.
If every person in the society is expected to spend twenty years of his life to complete saanga vedadhyayayana, who is supposed to learn the Upavedas? The Gandharvaveda is about music, Ayurveda is medicine, Sthapatyaveda is engineering and architecture while Dhanurveda is about martial arts. Apart from these Upavedas, there exist 64 other subjects for men and 72 subjects for women to be studied. If we apply a uniform education system for all, as is done in the current education system until 10th standard, we will end up with an army of clones who are jack of all trades and master of none. Therefore, the system of education based on the varnashrama is completely comprehensive and scientific and this was intact in the country until 1832. The Educational Survey of India 1832 done by the East India Company describes this system in extraordinary detail. We may also go through the 1835 English Education act of India to understand how it was strategically destroyed. The Eminent scholar Dharampal’s work might be a guiding light for us in this regard.
People who were performing padapooja to the pundits at Chennai were not bothered about the PhDs they have and the university they teach in. They were bowing down in front of them because they consider the Veda as ShabdaBrahman, a verbal manifestation Paramatma himself and those Pandits are immersed in them and living their lives according to their swadharma. During the final part of the competition each students were presented certificates and prize money. Some of the students were considered to be eligible for financial assistance too, which is to provided to both parents and teacher.
(IndicToday had previously made an announcement regarding the 10th All India Annual Vedic Competition organized by Om Charitable Trust, at T Nagar, Chennai on 19-22 of July 2018. This is the second part of the report on the same from Sri Dattaraj Deshpande, who attended the competition on behalf of Indic Academy. The first part can be read here. The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author.)