Study of scriptures, or svadhyaya, is another divine quality described in the Bhagavad Gita (16.2). In the Taittiriya Upanishad, after imparting instructions in Vedic texts to his disciples, the teacher exhorts them: "Do not neglect the study and teaching of the Vedas." (1.11.1)
By Vedanta is meant the Upanishads, which form the knowledge portion of the Vedas. Vedanta teaches that God alone is real and the world ephemeral and thus unreal. Our difficult experiences in the world may awaken in us discrimination between the real and the unreal. We then yearn for something real and abiding, and begin to understand that God-realization, or Self-realization, is the only goal of life that can lead to supreme fulfillment. A regular study of scriptures always reminds us of this ultimate goal and helps us to strive for it.
Study of scriptures is not an end in itself: it should lead to purification of mind and devotion to God. Mere scholarship is deprecated in a well-known Sanskrit verse: "Just as a donkey carrying a load of sandalwood on its back does not recognize the worth of the sandalwood but only groans under its burden, even so many people learned in the scriptures do not realize their true purport and simply bear the 'weight' of the outward knowledge."
Sri Shankara says in his Vivekachudamani: "Erudition, flowery speech, skill in expounding the scriptures-these things give pleasure to the learned, but do not lead to liberation." (58) "A network of words is like a dense forest that causes the mind to wander all around. Hence those who realize this should earnestly strive hard to know the true nature of the Self." (60)
The following teachings from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna illustrate the true import of scriptural study:
"Shall I tell you the truth? What will you gain by mere scholarship? The pundits hear many things and know many things-the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras. But of what avail is mere scholarship? Discrimination and renunciation are necessary."
"You may learn a great deal from books; but it is all futile if you have no love for God and no desire to realize Him. A mere pundit, without discrimination and renunciation, has his attention fixed on 'woman and gold'. The vulture soars very high but its eyes are fixed on the charnel-pit."
"It is true that many things are recorded in the scriptures; but all these are useless without the direct realization of God, without devotion to His Lotus Feet, without purity of heart. The almanac forecasts the rainfall of the year. But not a drop of water will you get by squeezing the almanac. No, not even one drop."
"Listen to a story. There was a king who used daily to hear the Bhagavata recited by a pundit. Every day, after explaining the sacred book, the pundit would say to the king, 'O King, have you understood what I have said?' And every day the king would reply, 'You had better understand it first yourself.' The pundit would return home and think: 'Why does the king talk to me that way day after day? I explain the texts to him so clearly, and he says to me, "You had better understand it first yourself." What does he mean?' The pundit used to practise spiritual discipline. A few days later he came to realize that God alone is real and everything else-house, family, wealth, friends, name, and fame- illusory. Convinced of the unreality of the world, he renounced it. As he left home he asked a man to take this message to the king: 'O King, I now understand.' "