The Mother of Indian Culture – VI

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India, said a western historian, is the Mother of the human race. The ‘Veda’ is the Mother of Indian civilization and culture. Whatever may be the outer material circumstances, which gave birth to the Indian civilization, the inner spiritual source of Indian culture are the Vedas. The spiritual and cultural history of India begins with the Vedas. But unfortunately, this spiritual treasure of India is misunderstood by most of the academic community in the West and also in India. In this article, we will examine the historical and spiritual significance of the Vedas for the evolution of Indian civilization and culture.

Modern Theories (Continued)

One of the major defects of modern Vedic scholarship is that too much importance is given to secondary and non-essential factors like philology, linguistics, history and comparative religion etc. while the most important and primary thing needed is totally ignored. For example, a modern scholar writing on the qualifications needed for Vedic exegesis observes:

“The widening scope and fields of modern knowledge make severe demands on the equipment of the interpreter of the Vedas. He should not only be conversant with the Veda and Vedanga in the traditional way, but also possess an expert knowledge of text-criticism, comparative philology, comparative mythology, religion and philosophy, ancient history, anthropology, archaeology, assyriology and several other relevant sciences.” 1

A Vedic scholar may possess all the qualifications listed here but if he does not have the spiritual intuition or at the least psychological insight he may totally miss the inner meaning of the Vedas. So what is needed most for deciphering the Vedic secret is not so much a vast and varied scholarship – though that is very helpful – but a spiritual intuition of the seer which can identify itself with the consciousness of the Vedic rishis, relive their essential experience and vision and therefore penetrate with holistic insight into the very spirit of Vedic culture.

This is also the reason why someone who denies the Vedic authority based on mere reason or sense-perception was not given much respect in the ancient Indian spiritual tradition. If someone denies the Vedic authority and wants to preach something new it cannot be based on reason which is inferior to spiritual intuition but on an equally authentic or greater spiritual intuition.

This brings us to some of the plus points of Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas. The first advantage is that Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation is not based on intellectual scholarship—though he had that in abundance—but on his own vast and rich yogic experience, especially on a very specific intuition into the Vedic symbolism. As Sri Aurobindo, describing some of his own inner experiences which led him to the study of the Vedic lore, says:

“My first contact with Vedic thought came indirectly while pursuing certain lines of self-development in the way of Indian Yoga, which, without my knowing it, were spontaneously converging towards the ancient and now unfrequented paths followed by our forefathers. At this time there began to arise in my mind an arrangement of symbolic names attached to certain psychological experiences which had begun to regularise themselves.” 2

“…I found…that the mantras of the Veda illuminated with a clear and exact light psychological experiences of my own for which I had found no sufficient explanation either in European psychology or in the teachings of Yoga or of Vedanta, so far as I was acquainted with them, and, secondly, that they shed light on obscure passages and ideas of the Upanishads to which, previously, I could attach no exact meaning and gave at the same time a new sense to much in the Puranas.” 3

The second advantage is that Sri Aurobindo is not only an intuitive seer but also a versatile scholar with a deep and extensive knowledge of Sanskrit language and literature, Indian culture and philosophy and modern philology and linguistics. Thus Sri Aurobindo had the intuitive as well as intellectual equipment to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the Vedic truth.

Let us now examine the basic outlines of Sri Aurobindo’s approach to the Vedas.

The Mystic Code of the Vedic Seers
The Vedas belong to an early phase ofhuman evolution. So, for a holistic comprehension of the Vedic revelation we have to understand the evolutionary condition of the historical period and the society in which it was born.

The Vedas are the creation of one of the earliest epochs of human civilisation when humanity as a whole had not acquired the reflective and rational intellectuality. It was the infrarational age in which the human mass in general lived in the mostly subconscious and communal vital-sensational mentality with its spontaneous life-instincts and intuitions. It was an age in which human consciousness, unclouded by the complexity of reflective intellectuality had an instinctive insight which perceived the outer world as a symbol of some supra-physical power. From this state of spontaneous vital instincts, a few exceptional individuals, by following a psychological and spiritual discipline, might have ascended to a higher level of consciousness of the spontaneously intuitive mind, bypassing the rational-intellectual mind. These are the mystics of the ancient civilisation. As Sri Aurobindo points out:

“For the greatest illuminating force of the infrarational man, as he develops, is an inferior intuition, an instinctively intuitional sight arising out of the force of life in him, and the transition from this to an intensity of inner life and the growth of a deeper spiritual intuition which outleaps the intellect and seems to dispense with it, is an easy passage in the individual man.” 4

This explains the symbolic and naturalistic forms of Vedic poetry. The Vedic sages described their inner psychological and spiritual experiences and realisations in a symbolic language using the events and objects of the external world which attracts and occupies the predominantly physical man, who lives mainly in his spontaneous, instinctive and sensational physical-vital being. For example, the Dawn of inner illumination, personified in the figure of the goddess Usha, is described in the symbolic imagery of the outer dawn. And the states or stages of un-illumined inner darkness—which in the Yoga of the Vedic mystics seem to alternate with states of inner illumination—are imaged as Nights. The fruits of spiritual effort bringing inner light and knowledge to the mind and energy to the vitality are described in the image of cows and horses, go and ashva, representing the dual aspect of the divinity, light and energy, or knowledge and force. The Ananda or the Delight of existence inherent in the sap or essence of life is imaged as soma-wine. The inner wars with the inner enemies of darkness, ignorance, falsehood and division—Panis, Valas and Vritas—are described in the imagery of outer wars which are a common and frequent phenomenon of ancient society. The sense of infinity and vastness of the higher spiritual consciousness is imaged in the figure of the Ocean. The language and the words are used with a double significance so that the name of the deities and other terminologies served at once inner and outer worship but conveyed different meaning to the esoteric initiate who followed the inner spiritual path and the external worshipper who followed the exoteric religion. As Sri Aurobindo explains:

“The Rishis arranged the substance of their thought in a system of parallelism by which the same deities are at once internal and external powers of universal nature and they managed its expression through a system of double values by which the same language served for their worship in both aspects.” 5

Another unique feature of the Vedas which gives mystic richness and profundity to the revelation is that their symbolism is not a deliberate creation of the mind but a direct and spontaneous expression of a higher supramental consciousness and knowledge. It is frequently said by exponents of esoteric philosophies that the mystics of these early prehistoric religions deliberately used symbolic language to conceal the spiritual truth from the profane. But in the case of the Vedic revelation there seems to be no such deliberate intention to conceal the truth from the laity. This esoteric motive may be built into the revelation itself as it was received ready-made by the Vedic sages, but might not be consciously or deliberately intended by them. The Mother explains the nature of the Vedic revelation as follows:

“They used an imaged language. Some people say that it was because they wanted it to be an initiation which would be understood only by the initiates. But it could also be an absolutely spontaneous expression without a precise aim to veil things, but which could not be understood except by those who had the experience. For it is quite obviously something that is not mental, which came spontaneously – as though it sprang from the heart and the aspiration – which was the completely spontaneous expression of an experience or knowledge and naturally, an expression which was poetic, which had its own rhythm, its own beauty and could be accessible only to those who had an identical experience. So it was veiled of itself, there was no need to add a veil upon it. It is more than likely that it happened like that.

When one has a true experience which is not the result of a preliminary thought constructing and obtaining the experience by a special effort, if it is a direct and spontaneous experience, an experience that comes from the very intensity of the aspiration, it is spontaneously formulated into words…. Which are not thought out, which are spontaneous, which come out spontaneously from the consciousness. Well, it is more than likely that the Vedas were like that. But only those who have had the experience, had the same state of consciousness, can understand what it means.

There are those sentences which seem absolutely banal and ordinary, in which things seem to be said in an almost childish way, and which are written out or heard and then noted down, like that. Well, when read with an ordinary consciousness, they seem sometimes even altogether banal. But if one has the experience, one sees that there is a power of realization and a truth of expression which give you the key to the experience itself.” 6

Thus the Vedic revelation is a spontaneous expression of the truth and knowledge and harmony of a higher consciousness expressing itself in its own rhythm, language, form of expression and, finally, clothing itself in the right words. This is the origin of the Indian ideal of poetry and the Indian theory of the Mantra. In this ancient Indian conception, perfect poetry is a mantra, a sacred intonation, a truth or idea seen by the inner vision of the seer breathed out in the right rhythm and the inevitable word.

This makes the Vedic revelation capable of multiple interpretation and understanding depending on the perspective of the interpreter. The Vedas are a description in a symbolic language of the spiritual quest and experiences and realisations of the Vedic Rishis. But the symbols can be interpreted at the spiritual, cosmic, psychological or physical level. At the highest spiritual level the Vedas reveal the knowledge of the highest spiritual truth, powers and laws of the transcendent Reality, One existence which the sages call variously, ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti. At the cosmic level they reveal laws and processes of the occult or cosmic forces in the play of their interaction and harmony. At the psychological level the Vedas reveal the manifestations and workings of these cosmic forces in the psychological being of man. Let us, for example, take the Vedic pantheon. At the highest spiritual level the gods are spiritual powers or “aspects” or names and forms of the supreme Godhead, each god containing within himself all the other godheads and representing the One Supreme. On the cosmic level each god is a universal force performing a particular cosmic function. On the psychological level each god represents a psychological faculty or power in the human consciousness, especially a higher faculty beyond the human mind. Extending this correspondence further down to the level of physical nature we may surmise that the Vedic symbolism, when rightly understood, may reveal the deeper laws of physical Nature, which means the highest scientific knowledge. So the contention of some of the modern Vedic commentators like Dayananda that the Vedas contain not only the highest spiritual and psychological knowledge but also the highest scientific knowledge is quite a plausible proposition. For, according to the Vedic sages, the laws of the universe form a unity. There is only one essential Law which repeats itself and works itself out differently at each level of the cosmos according to the energy and substance of that level. As Sri Aurobindo explains this ancient Vedic conception:

“.. it is one Law and Truth acting in all, but very differently formulated according to the medium in which the work proceeds and its dominant principle. The same gods exist on all the planes and maintain the same essential laws, but with a different aspect and mode of working and ever wider results.” 7

Thus Vedas is not the primitive chants of an early barbarian humanity as conceived by most of the modern western scholarship. The Vedic epiphany is the record in symbolic language of the inner spiritual explorations of the Vedic Rishis in the higher realms of consciousness inaccessible to ordinary man. The Vedic seers described the path they traversed as at once a journey, battle and an ascent towards an infinite and eternal Reality which they called as the Truth, Right and the Vast—Sathyam, Rtm, Brihat. As Sri Aurobindo sums up his perspective of the Veda:

“In this esoteric as well as its exoteric significance, it (Vedas) is the Book of Works of the inner and outer sacrifice; it is the spirit’s hymn of battle and victory as it discovers and climbs to planes of thought and experience inaccessible to the natural or animal man, man’s praise of the Divine Light, Power and Grace at work in the mortal. It is far, therefore, from being an attempt to set down the results of intellectual or imaginative speculation, nor does consists of the dogmas of primitive religion.” 8

The New Scholarship on the Vedas

However, Sri Aurobindo is not the only modern thinker to consider the Vedas as inspired spiritual revelation. Before Sri Aurobindo, Dayananda held a similar view. Even among early European scholars, most of whom viewed Vedas as the primitive chant of barbarian hordes, there were a few sensitive scholars who perceived a deeper truth and beauty in the Vedic hymns. After Sri Aurobindo many scholars are beginning to appreciate the deeper thought and spiritual inspiration behind the hymns of the Vedic bards. We reproduce here below the views and conclusion of some of the leading and new exponents of this school of Vedic learning with a more intuitive and sensitive appreciation and understanding of the Vedas:

The hymnal literature (Vedas) is not “primitive”. It is highly developed in literary form, in its intellectual insight, and in its questioning attitude. The glory of this literature, however, is its imaginative and emotional qualities. There is a deeply religious mood in the longer hymns to (God) Varuna, an awareness of divine might in the hymns to (God) Indra, a special radiance and loveliness in the hymns to (Goddess) Usha.  [Thomas Berry]

The Rig Veda is not only a highly important religious and literary document and as such an object of study for philologists and historians it is a work of art and a source of inspiration and edification. [Jan Gonda]

The song, hymn and prayer of the Veda is a search for light, enlightenment and an endeavour to win heaven for its successful practitioner. The Rig Veda is a meditation in itself and so is its study. [Jeanine Miller]

The Vedas is a supreme example of a type of poetry, in which, the life of the symbol corresponds so intimately with the truth it clothes, it is indeed the living form of truth. There are residing within the language of the Veda, a hierarchy of potencies, indwelling powers of speech which inspire by means of sound and a transcendent logic. These verses were forged by the vibrant poets who veiled the imperishable in a raiment so perfectly fitted and so utterly transparent that the very act of veiling is simultaneously an unveiling. Image, sound and sense were indissolubly united to forge luminous language – symbols capable of conveying the most radiant hues of the imperishable. The aim of this language is not to beckon the discursive faculties but to reveal in swift, strong and sonorous unveiling images the very cognition which gave birth to the initial expression. [James Newton Powell]

The Vedas are not trying to communicate facts but spiritual meaning. They are appropriately composed in a highly evocative symbolic language. The Vedas speak of what is secret, hidden, mysterious and purposely veiled. They emphasize the need for special instruction, initiation and meditative or ritual practices and disciplines in order to understand their deeper meaning. In other words, the Vedas are part of an esoteric tradition that requires special insight and keys, without which we cannot make any real sense of the Vedic revelation. [George Feurenstein, Subash Kak and David Frawley]

Thus, this new scholarships is discovering what Sri Aurobindo described succinctly in the following words:

“The Veda is a book of esoteric symbols, almost of spiritual formulae, which makes itself as a collection of ritual poems. The inner sense is psychological, universal and impersonal.” 9

 

Other articles in this series

Part I   |   Part II   |   Part III   |   Part IV   |   Part V  |  Part VI

References:

1. Editor’s Preface by A.D. Pusaltar, India, Pub. by Ramakrishna Institute of Culture.
2. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda
3. Ibid 37
4. Sri Aurobindo, Human Cycle, SABCL, Vol.15.p177
5. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda
6. The Mother, CWM, Vol.7, pp.359-60
7. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol.16, p.228
8. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda
9. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda