My own approach to the Vedas has been a gradual one - a process of alternating weeding and expanding, following hints from the most obscure sources to the most obvious of conclusions. As I recently explained, I am an American of German and Scotch-Irish ancestry, raised in enough proximity to Protestant Christianity only to be annoyed by it. Drawn to philosophy, I soon sickened of what the modern West had to offer and looked east, first fascinated by India and then backed off by the cloying sweetness of its bhakti. Then I picked up Buddhism, in various forms beginning and ending with Zen, having benefitted immensely from its practice but being repulsed by the shallowness of its modern incarnation, the hypocrisy of its adherents, and most importantly its failure or refusal to understand or believe the thing I found most important in my own meditation experience - the awareness of a true sense of Self that goes beyond the shallow individuality of modern identity and yet stops short of the useless Oneness and ephemeral insubstantiality espoused by Buddha's modern advocates.
In search of my true Self, whose identity I could no longer deny, I took up Asatru, the modern reconstruction of my ancestral religious practices. There I found strong gods, gods with passions who called to me deep in my true nature, unlike the probably fictitious, banal Jesus or the either dry or syrupy Buddha whom I'd known (who I'm now convinced was only a modern evisceration of the real one, the strong Aryan warrior prince of the Vedic tradition - but that for later). In the Nordic tradition I found the roots of ancestor and family that were missing from modernism, I found the true basis of a Self that is more than just me, the atomized individual. In Odin I found inspiration, in Tyr I found direction, and in Thor I found heart. Truly, the next step of my process, after destroying the modern person in Zen, was to begin the true Self from its building blocks in my genes. For I will never be just a man, isolated and alone. I will ever be the child of my ancestors, and of the forces of the Storm and the Sea.
It became clear to me - the linguistic, meta-historical, and even astronomic arguments are too complex (although compelling) to set forth there - that behind the un-evolved (due to the conquering sword of Christ) tradition of the Nordics and the German, and the smothering blanket of Hinduism which still disgorges great truths, there lay a common Tradition, a part of my heritage as much as that of the Indians, a true wisdom of man whose now unknown source was the origin of the Vedas, which appear to be the oldest preserved and highest tradition of Man, whose truth the Buddha tried to restore and mistakenly tried to rephrase thousand of years later, and whose basic truths have been the target of every engine of destructive untruth from Zoroaster to Marx. Lot of people write about the Vedas - but how to truly know them?
The Vedas, the ancient pre-Hindu texts of India, passed down for maybe thousands of years by word of mouth before transcription as we "know" them somewhere around four thousand years ago - how do we know them? We have only the words of others, really - the Vedas are there to be read, originally in a language known as Vedic, an early form of Sanskrit. I have studied some at Sanskrit, a designed language unimaginably complex, and my hope lessens as I go on that I will be able to read the Vedas with anything like their original meaning. The modern translations I'd found were either unexplained and thus inexplicable, drily academic, or mined for propaganda by some modern advocate of a devolved understanding. Trying to understand the four ancient Vedas, plus the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, and all the supporting texts - this would be a lifetime process, a process I really wish I had an extra lifetime to undertake. But I don't, as far as I know, and thus was blessed by a book called The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration, by Raimundo Panikkar.
This is a book written in modern times - published in 1977, and my edition is from a press in India, and its author died only in 2010. Panikkar appears to have been a fascinating man and scholar, a product of a Spanish Catholic mother and an Indian father, a Jesuit priest who in his own words began in Catholicism, went to India to discover Hinduism, and came home a Buddhist. His multi-religious nature is evident from the body of his work, but refreshingly lacking in this earnest and penetrating anthology of Vedic texts. I am about as sick of the argument for the oneness of all religions as I can be - it may be true that there is only one higher truth, expressed in many languages and through many cultures and traditions, but the syrupy multiplistic Evangelism of our time, the pandering to each and every, holds nothing but the trashy sentiment of Hallmark cards for me. Panikkar instead unfolds the Vedas from their own heart and source, and does so faithfully.
What the author does, in this 900-page tome which is full of Vedic verses rendered into comprehensible English, appropriately and meaningfully footnoted, and most especially full of insightful commentary and explication, and formed into an organic whole, is to discuss the Vedas by topic, and make them make sense to me. He discusses the subject matter of the Vedas from the formation of existence through the ritual, sacrifice and meaning of man, as reflected in each of the four Vedas and the Vedanta, especially the Upanishads. He renders them in his own insightful prose and poetic translation. Every footnote is a gem, pretty much. I gained from this volume not only the best understanding of which I may be capable of the literal content of the Vedas - the gods, the concepts, the rituals and their meanings, the basic building blocks and course of evolution of all that is - but also a deep understanding, I think of their heart, which is much like mine.
The most surprising and unexpected thing that Panikkar finds in the Vedas is the one unnamable thing that seems to me to be the organic nature of my true self, that results from the polar understanding, the seeing of (1) the nature of ultimate existence, unmanifest or just manifest, undefined, the essential oneness which Buddha calls impermanence, what is beyond our comprehension or even our ability to imagine comprehending, and (2) the essential this-is-that ground-based, natural yet stone-like and unarguable truth of my existence as this person, this particular person and not some other, not a product of, but a part of, a genetic stock, a species, a race, a culture and a family. I may be the tail end of my gene pool, but I do swim in it. In this book, this Vedic anthology, the sky truly meets the earth, the heavens thunder and Titans roar, together. This is the Purusa, the man who is the universe, the true Self.
Having spent weeks reading and mediating on this volume, I find that there are indeed some differences between my intuitive understanding of the essential truth behind the Vedas, and those of the author. I certainly will never in this lifetime be able to argue with him about the Vedas, because I am relatively ignorant, and he is dead. Nevertheless, commentary is commentary, and meaning is both universal and subjective. For example: it seems to me (I'd rather not put words in their mouths) that most modern Hindus, or those who have an interest in the Vedic source of most of their religions find the peak of Vedic thought to come in the Bhagavad Gita. Personally I find the Gita to be a bit too far toward what became the Hindu end of the spectrum. Starts with karma, ends with bhakti, and all the attention goes to the latter - as pointed out by one of my current favorites Bal Tilak - current as a man can be who died in 1920, that is - in a book I technically own but can't read, his Srimad Bhagavad Gita Rahasya (e-book problem). It may be that Panikkar agrees with the large group of Vedic scholars and modern mystics who place the pinnacle of Vedic thought in the Upanishads, with their introversion into the meditative aspect of man, as Hinduism moved to parallel Buddhism and to foresee Christianity, or what became known as such. Hard to say. For me, the essential truth of the matter seems to lie in a time and a place that are not time and place, in our modern sense of the words - before matter was the dense thing we know now, before man was man. The truth, it seems to me lies in a time outside of time, from which time and all things personal and material manifest.
And of this timeless time, this unformed instance in which is found all form, this true source of Tradition and Self, meaning and knowledge, it seems to me so far that the Vedas may be the best record we have, in the language of man so far better than our current languages, maybe better than our tongues can ever render again. And that so far, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari, is the best introduction to that record which I have encountered. I can forgive its author his acceptance of Christianity (if that is really a fair term for the understanding that there are truths behind the veil of illusion which is its main aspect) as long as his understanding of the Vedas is this deep, and he can present it to me this forcefully.
For those who want to witness the place where the Earth meets the Sky in your own hearts, I can recommend no better place to begin, except of course where you are.